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August 01, 1998  |   Comments (0)   |   Post a comment

It Could Happen Here

Are you prepared for gunfire aboard a school bus? Recent campus assaults have forced transportation managers to scrutinize training programs, student conduct policies and emergency plans.

by Steve Hirano, Executive Editor

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Violence is all the rage on school campuses these days, literally. The recent carnage in Springfield, Ore., West Paducah, Ky., Pearl, Miss., and Jonesboro, Ark., is graphic evidence that the violent impulses of children can turn deadly when guns are involved. Educators have responded by approving zero-tolerance policies for weapons possession and threats, installing campus metal detectors and supporting increased crisis prevention training for teachers, counselors and other building personnel. Transportation departments are also searching for solutions. Although the recent assaults have not taken place on a school bus, the possibility that drivers and passengers will someday become players in a shooting rampage cannot be ignored. "Hey, if you don't smell something like this coming, you're not paying attention," says Terry Thomas, president of Community Bus Services Inc. in Youngstown(Ohio). "The incidents are certainly increasing, and it's going to happen somewhere." Crisis prevention training is one option for transportation managers, who also should be preparing emergency plans in the event of a tragedy on the scale of the May 21 assault in Springfield, Ore., in which two students were killed and 22 others injured in the spray of gunfire by 15-year-old Kip Kinkel. "The transportation issue is critical in terms of being prepared for crisis situations," says Kenneth S. Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services in Cleveland. "Drivers need to be fully supported and trained." Moreover, Trump says transportation managers need to be active participants in developing district crisis guidelines. "Certainly you could have a violent incident or hostage situation aboard a bus, but transportation's also going to be key if you have an emergency dismissal or a mass evacuation," he says. "You can't just fly by the seat of your pants in those situations."

The Springfield tragedy
Volinda Wilson, transportation director at Springfield (Ore.) School District, says Kip Kinkel's bloody rampage at Thurston High School tested the preparedness of her 70-bus operation. "I heard the distress call that we had several bodies down at Thurston High School, and I thought about my drivers having to evacuate the school," Wilson says. "Before the drivers had to face the students I wanted them to meet with a counselor, who told them what they could be facing and where they needed to be with themselves. And my drivers did a super job." On buses serving other schools in Springfield, drivers were instructed not to turn on the radio. Wilson said news of the tragedy was kept from the passengers so they could be informed by their parents. Not every driver followed the procedure. "You're shocked and stunned by the news," she says. "Some were quick to turn off their radios; others were not so quick." In the wake of the shooting, Wilson says she would like to train drivers to recognize the warning signs of a student who's on the brink of a violent episode. She believes that drivers have insights into the children’s lives that even teachers might not have. "We're the first to see them in the morning and the last to see them as they go home," Wilson says. "And often we know them from the time they're 5 years old until they graduate from high school. We certainly learn a lot about them in that time." Wilson also would like to instruct bus drivers on how to deal with gun-wielding students and hostage situations. "Kip Kinkel was an active bus rider," she says, reflecting on the horrifying possibility that he might have unleashed his fury on a packed school bus. That fateful day, however, Kinkel didn't ride the bus to school. Instead, he killed his parents and took their car.

Warning signs evident?
Bill Hoosty, a senior training consultant for the Pupil Transportation Safety Institute in Syracuse(NY), says drivers need to improve their awareness of what’s going on in the bus. "For example, Johnny gets on the bus, heads toward the back, stops to a show a friend something he has in a gym bag and continues to the back of the bus," he says. "That may begin to be where the driver shows a little more attention." Hoosty believes that the transportation department should be looked upon as the distant early-warning signal for the schools. "And drivers, when they write somebody up or talk to the building administrators, need to be given a lot more credibility than they have in the past," he says. George Horne, a school transportation consultant in Metairie(La.), agrees that drivers can play a role in heading off impending violence by noting any dramatic changes in a child’s personality or behavior. "It’s been my experience that some kids will talk to bus drivers when they won’t talk to their teachers or counselors," he says. Horne says particular attention should be paid to children who are constantly teased by their peers. "We see it more and more. These are the children who are striking out because they’re not going to take it anymore," he says.

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