State pupil transportation directors from across the country convened in Grand Rapids, Mich., in late October to discuss issues of national importance, from seat belts to bullying to school bus security.
The National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services’ (NASDPTS) annual conference began with a series of presentations on seat belts in school buses. The presenters reprised their comments from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s public meeting on the topic in July.
While NASDPTS hasn’t adopted a position for or against lap-shoulder belts in large school buses, NASDPTS Executive Director Bob Riley said it would support their inclusion if funding were made available. However, any unintended consequences — such as a reduction in the number of students transported — would have to be addressed.
The West Brook (Texas) Bus Crash Families also gave their perspective on the issue. The group formed in 2006 after a motorcoach accident that killed two soccer players and injured others. Surviving players and family members have been campaigning for seat belts in school transportation vehicles. Their advocacy spurred successful state legislation — named “Ashley and Alicia’s Bill” in honor of the girls who were killed in the crash — to require lap-shoulder belts in school buses and motorcoaches that transport students.
Stephen Forman, whose daughter Allison was pinned under the motorcoach for more than an hour, said that to parents, opposition to seat belts on school buses doesn’t make sense. He cited the prevalence of messages aimed at the motoring public saying that seat belts save lives. And he challenged the often-used simile of school bus compartmentalization protecting kids like an egg carton.
“We don’t buy it,” Forman said. “When you buy eggs, the first thing you do is open the carton to see whether any are cracked.”
California Pupil Transportation Director John Green gave the perspective of a state that has already required lap-shoulder belts on all school buses. Green said that while he initially had reservations about the plan, “I had to let go of my arguments and make it work. I had to do my job.”
While there hasn’t been enough real-world data from California buses to gauge any safety benefits of the belts, there have been noted improvements in behavior since students stay seated, Green said. And in some cases, capacity loss has been mitigated by adjusting routes and bell schedules.
Bus bullying examined
Ohio filmmaker Thomas Brown showed NASDPTS members Tears on the Highway, his emotionally charged film about school bus bullying.
Ohio Pupil Transportation Director Pete Japikse described the polarizing effect of the film. “Some of you will like it, and some of you will hate it,” Japikse said. Still, he said that it was something that demanded to be watched and reacted to.
The film’s tone and content is certainly troubling. A downtrodden boy recounts a tragedy of his own making: In an unruly school bus, he led other passengers in picking on another boy, ultimately pushing him down and giving him a bloody nose. The bus driver, distracted by the violence, crashed the bus.
Brown has been showing Tears on the Highway to students in Ohio and other states, and he said that his own experience with bullying as a youth has helped him in connecting with children.
Security under scrutiny
Raymond Cotton, assistant general manager of the Highway and Motor Carrier Program at the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), discussed pupil transportation security issues.
While school buses are the safest way for children to get to and from school, they do have significant security vulnerabilities, Cotton said, because they can be a lucrative target for terrorists: they are relatively unprotected, they run on predictable routes and schedules, and they have the potential for a large number of casualties.
Part of security act H.R. 1, which was signed in August, calls for an assessment of the risk of a terrorist attack on the nation’s school buses. The provision directs the Department of Homeland Security’s secretary to submit a pupil transportation security report to Congress within a year of enactment.
Cotton said that TSA has been consulting industry representatives and will continue to solicit help in conducting the security assessment.