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August 01, 2006  |   Comments (8)   |   Post a comment

Bus Empty?: Solving the Stranded-Pupil Problem

Why are children continually abandoned on school buses? The reasons abound, but so do the possible solutions. Applying multiple strategies to train, remind and check up on drivers will help ensure the safety of precious cargo.

by Thomas McMahon - Also by this author

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After implementing a zero-tolerance policy four years ago, the average number of incidents dropped to less than one. And, Despenza points out, his fleet has also grown substantially since then.

Salazar’s operation also holds to a zero-tolerance policy. Earlier this year, a driver was fired for leaving a 4-year-old on a bus for a few hours in hot weather. The driver had been with the district for two decades.

Salazar says that in some cases, a driver could be transferred to food service or the custodial department, but he or she “wouldn’t drive a bus anymore here.”

Oram takes a similar tack. “To me, it’s serious enough that it warrants dismissal,” he says. Still, he acknowledges that “maybe drivers don’t understand the potential consequences: loss of job, child endangerment charges, negative publicity.”

Jones has mixed feelings on discipline in these cases. “Is it appropriate to fire someone after 20 years of experience and this happens once?” he says. “The driver feels as bad as anyone.”

Factors such as how long the child was left alone and whether he or she was injured should be considered, Jones says.

Abramson offers another variable. “The supervisor might decide to suspend the driver, but [if] it goes to court, they might ultimately not have a choice but to fire the driver, especially if that’s one of the things [the parents are] suing for,” he says. “A lot of times when it gets to litigation, they’re looking for money and the driver’s head on a platter.”

Goby says that the driver often bears too much of the blame when a child is left on a bus.

“If the supervisor doesn’t check that the driver is performing these responsibilities, where you need 100 percent compliance, then the supervisor should be disciplined,” Goby says.

Goby says that while drivers should also be disciplined in some manner if they forget to check their bus, he feels that firing a driver for this type of incident is more to placate parents than it is to prevent it from happening again at the operation.

At Cecil County, Markwardt responds to these incidents on a case-by-case basis. “We look at the driver, we look at the circumstances — we look at everything we can — and then we make a determination,” Markwardt says.

Navigating the wake
Dealing with the parents of a child who was left on the bus is likely one of the less desirable situations a transportation manager might be faced with.

According to Sumner County’s Riggsbee, the key is to “apologize, apologize, apologize. When you’re talking to a parent, you just don’t have an excuse.”

Salazar agrees. “You have to understand where the parents are coming from, because it’s their kid,” he says. “You’re all about safety, and one of your drivers has just broken one of the biggest rules by leaving a child on the bus.”

Salazar suggests keeping the parents informed as the situation develops, but he doesn’t recommend telling them the driver’s fate.

“Let them know that you’ve done an investigation and that you took the appropriate action with the driver,” he says. “But don’t tell them what you actually did. If the driver was fired, the parents will eventually find out.”

Salazar also suggests working with the district communications officer, if there is one, because he or she can help in handling the media if necessary.

Jones says that part of the difficulty of responding to parents is in trying to earn back their trust.

“It’s a loss of confidence in school transportation,” he says. “Parents might decide to take their kids off the bus, but that puts them at more risk than the occasional kid being left on the bus. The school bus is still the safest way to get a kid to school.”

In the case of young Joanne Jamison, her mother, Maggie, decided to put her back on the bus the week after she was left stranded.

After the incident, the driver and an official from the bus company called to apologize. “They’re doing everything they can to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” Maggie says. “I just want to make sure my child is safe. If I felt that she wasn’t, I’d never put her back on that bus.”

Still, Maggie told her daughter that if she does find herself alone on the bus again, she should scream and honk the horn.

To help assuage any fears Joanne may have had, an attendant began sitting with her on the bus and meeting her outside of the school.

Maggie admits that when the driver called, she didn’t initially handle it well. “I got a little snappy with her at first,” she says. But Maggie says she soon realized that she should try to make something positive come out of what started as a troubling experience.

“Buses will always take our kids to school, and that’s important,” Maggie says. “It’s important for me to work with these people. But I didn’t have that attitude at first.”


'It' happened to me!

Carol Boucher, a school bus driver since 1999 in Green Bay, Wis., loves her job and takes it seriously. For her passion, she’s earned the nickname “Bus Nut” and has won her company’s top driver honor, the Presidential Award. She describes herself as conscientious and a rule follower. Clearly, she’s not a driver one would expect to miss a sleeping passenger. Here, Boucher recounts how “it” happened to her one day last year: I never thought it would. Didn’t see how it possibly could. I check my bus for sleeping children before I ever pull away from school. Here’s how things went awry.

Noon route. Early Childhood. Only six students. There’s usually one or two sleeping when I get to school. I wake them up, get their backpacks on them and have them stand in line to wait for the two teachers to come out and get them.

On this day, there was a car in my spot in front of the school doors, so I had to hang back about one bus length. The teachers always come out to the bus, and we talk about who rode in, who didn’t, etc. But because I wasn’t close — and it was cold — they more or less stood by the door and motioned for the kids to get inside.

I sent them all (I thought); even the two who are usually sleeping were awake this day. I walked back to check my bus and found a hat, probably in the third or fourth seat. I grabbed it and quickly ran to the school doors before they closed (they lock at that point). I delivered the hat and then got back on the bus.

Because of the way everything went — the activity and all — it felt like I checked my bus. So I got in my seat and drove home. Just as I pulled up in front of my house (a 12-minute trip), I saw a head pop up in the seat! I wasn’t even thinking it was a student. Couldn’t be. I just didn’t know. It scared the heck right out of me! I yelled, “Who is it?” (Actually, that part is funny in retrospect.)

Then I realized who it was, so off I went back to school. I radioed base and told them that I had found a sleeping student and was returning to school. Proper procedure, no questions asked — they knew it was only a few minutes since I dropped off.

The point is, it can happen to anyone. I am always so careful. I would never think of not checking my bus or cutting any corners, but still it happened. Thank God for the new Child Check-Mate systems we have. I hadn’t gotten to the point of turning my bus off when I saw him, but it could have saved us both. I would still have had to walk to the back of the bus to disarm the system before I could shut the ignition off, and I would have seen him then. But this just really scared me!

The next day, after I checked at school, I pulled over out of the driveway and checked again!

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Every time I read one of the child left behind reports I’m shocked. How this can possibly happen with today’s safeguards in place? The most bewildering would be when there is a monitor on the bus. I am not aware of any bus that doesn’t have, at a minimum, a child check button located in the rear of the bus. Most busses are equipped with some sort of electronic monitoring, in our case we use the Zonar system. In order to load a student(s) you need to activate the ambers and reds, this arms the system. We have 3 separate checks, 1st when the key is turned off there is a audible alarm, to deactivate you will need to walk to the back of the bus (if there is a monitor, what is he /she doing). 2nd the Zonar system has a child check mode, 3 different sensors must be triggered, again one needs to walk back through the bus. 3rd The post trip check includes a 3 point sensor check again! When I’m back there I’ll hang the bus empty sign in the rear window. After all that, we radio base announcing child check complete for bus XXXXX. The last thing we do is “clock out” on Zonar. The question still remains “how can you leave/miss a student”? Before leaving the school grounds we do our mechanical check to assure no passengers remaining, I have found “little ones” asleep! That is why there is a child check requirement.

Frank G    |    Mar 07, 2015 06:23 AM

All of our bus driver sign a committment sheet at pre-service stating they will check bus. During school year they are required to hang a sign in back window declaring their bus has been checked. Result for 2 years no child left on bus.

B. Warfield    |    Jul 18, 2014 05:11 AM

The company I work for also ran into a problem similar to this about a decade ago. Unfortunately we had to relieve an extremely responsible driver and long-time employee after she made the mistake and left a child on her bus for less than an hour. Since then we have installed electronic systems to ensure it does not happen again, I believe it is called the Child Check System. It astounds me that these incidents continue to occur despite the availability and inexpensiveness of these systems. It is time for our school systems to start taking responsibility for the children they supervise and spending the little cash required to install them on our buses.

I'Miracle Johnson    |    May 22, 2013 06:33 AM

With modern buses never happen, when turn the ignition key off, a buzzer sounds loud till you go back open and close the emergency back door. 1-turn ignition key to acc. 2-Go back and turn off switch or open and close the back door 3-Come back up front, pick up your keys

xarneco    |    Oct 28, 2011 08:32 PM

drivers must be careful

AMENDA    |    May 06, 2011 01:56 AM

After leaving Detroit Public Schools I worked on developing a system for insuring students were not left on the bus. The system is called the ChildSaf System and is comprised of several components. This is an inexpensive system that all transportation operators can afford. It includes a district policy, procedures for drivers to follow following route completion, procedures for administrators to follow to insure driver compliance after each transport cycle, a reflectorized EMPTY sign attached to the rear window of the bus with special velcro, and training materials to emphasize the importance of the post route check for students. Electronic devices are great but do not provide the redundancy necessary to insure no child is left on the bus and do not provide a visual cue of the driver post route check. If all districts would just use the ChildSaf System, these problems would be almost entirely eliminated. In Detroit, with 600 buses, we went from 10-12 children left on the bus per year following route completion to O. Email me and I'll tell you how it works.

Dale Goby    |    Jan 26, 2011 11:56 AM

We too were subjected with children left on the bus and our solution was to post a "bus Empty" placard in the rear window of the bus during the post trip inspection. We thought it was a little bit over board at the time, but hey, it got the job done...

Chuck    |    Jan 19, 2011 06:55 AM

It is astonishing that this issue over time has went from "No harm - No foul" to "Leave a child - Leave Laidlaw" to "Leave a child - Go to prison." The airlines know how to properly present their employees and themselves in the press when a lost child is found hundreds of miles from his or her intended destination. Angry parents of misdirected kids found hundreds of miles form their departure point in that industry say the same thing parents say to this industry. But airline management knows how to turn a lemon event into lemonade. The lynching mentality is persistent with this issue, not just with some parents but also within industry ranks. Understand that every time the hostile employer open their mouths in the press they most clearly present what they are to their community’s potential workforce. Every school bus driver is vulnerable to missing a procedure, this one included. Who in their right mind can recommend their grandmother, other family members and friends drive school bus under the current hostile conditions these days? Does your community's employer terminate the employee on the first offense if a child is found unharmed while sleeping alone on one of your school buses? Is, 'Leave a child - Go to prison', the new slogan for school bus drivers in your community? The malbehaved misuse fear to get their way. The well behaved use hope. When uncertain concerning which is which - Don't drink the Kool-Aid! ~ James Kraemer, 2safeschools

James Kraemer    |    Jul 14, 2010 10:06 AM

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