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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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Firepower is growing
"Years ago we talked about fistfights; now we talk about gunfights," Ronald Stephens, president of the National School Safety Center in Westlake Village(Calif.), told the Los Angeles Times. "First it was a big deal if we saw guns come to school. Now we're seeing semiautomatic weapons." Thomas of Community Bus Services believes that school bus operators must respond to this problem with additional training, but has concerns about the affordability of this commitment. "It's the level of sophistication with which you can approach that problem," Thomas says. "This is no different than years ago when they mandated drug and alcohol testing and commercial driver's license requirements. All you had to do was have a strategy that made sense. You addressed it and resolved it within your operation." But training drivers to handle potentially violent situations — beyond the kick-and-push scrapping of two third-graders — requires an investment of capital, which Thomas says some small school districts can't afford. "I feel sorry for the public-sector bus operators, especially those with small fleets, whose school boards don't give them the resources to deal with these problems," he says. Thomas says he's turned to the crisis intervention program developed by Strategies Training Systems in Seattle. "We'll spend a couple thousand dollars developing programs, and then we'll start the training this fall," he says. "We’ll have our situation under control for our customers. It's just good business."

Drivers often overlooked
"What's important for school districts is to be offering training to school bus drivers," says Linda Steiger, president of the Crisis Prevention Institute (CPI) in Brookfield, Wis. "They are often overlooked when it comes to this type of training." CPI trainers teach school staff members how to de-escalate situations using verbal and non-verbal behaviors. Steiger says confidence is the key to successfully handling these situations. "This allows you to focus on what the student is actually saying or doing, rather than becoming fearful and distraught." Although verbal de-escalation is the primary objective, CPI also teaches techniques to subdue a physically aggressive student. However, the notion that drivers should be taught physical restraint tactics is controversial (see Industry Forum), though few would deny that drivers are occasionally called upon to break up fights. At the core of much of the violence on campuses and school buses these days is the breakdown of collective morals and sanctions. Many people believe that society is to blame for the quickening pulse of youth violence. From the standpoint of safe school transportation, the bottom line is that students are more difficult to handle now than, say, a decade, or even five years, ago. "It's a lack of respect for adult authority," says Bob McElligott, transportation safety manager at Davidsmeyer Bus Service in Elk Grove Village, Ill. "Students just blatantly disregard the rules. They just don't care." McElligott says his company, which operates 120 buses and transports approximately 8,000 children, is treating the rash of violence "very seriously" and has reported threats to school authorities. "There’s no goofing around," he says. "You’d rather err on the side of safety."

Threats taken seriously
Bobby Sheroan, transportation director at Hardin County (Ky.) Board of Education, says concern about potential violence has increased over the past year. These days, rumors of weapons aboard the school bus are immediately investigated. Last year, a student was expelled after it was proven that he had brought a gun on the school bus. "Rumors are investigated to the utmost, even at the cost of considerable time on our part," Sheroan says. The district operates 184 school buses in a mostly rural area spread over 600 square miles. On a few of the alternative-school routes, drivers use hand-held metal detectors on high-risk students before they're allowed to enter the bus. "That way we know that they're going to school without a weapon," Sheroan says. He met with the students' parents before implementing the weapons search and has not received any opposition. The students are placed on special-needs buses with a minimal number of other passengers. Although the hand-held scanners prevent the most incorrigible youths from bringing weapons to school, they are not used on regular-education bus routes. Earlier this year, Indianapolis Public Schools implemented random weapons checks at elementary schools, with many of the searches taking place as the students disembarked from the school bus. Not everyone supports the idea that these precautions will stop the flow of weapons on school campuses. School transportation consultant Horne says a district he once worked for prohibited students from toting book bags unless they had see-through mesh. "But if a child wants to bring a gun to school, he's going to find a way to do it," he says. Expecting a bus driver to identify students who might be carrying weapons is unreasonable, Horne says. "If the driver is really doing his job properly — paying attention to the loading and unloading process — it's almost impossible for him [to watch for students trying to bring weapons aboard]."

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