The commonly used phrase “home-to-school transportation” is not exactly accurate. The vast majority of students who receive yellow school bus service only ride part of the way to and from school — from the bus stop in the morning and to the bus stop in the afternoon. That means, of course, students and their parents are responsible for getting to the bus stop safely in the morning and from the bus stop to home in the afternoon. The distance that a student might have to cover to the bus stop could be as little as 30 feet or as much as several blocks. That’s a wide variance, but these children share a common bond: Until they step on the school bus in the morning or reach home in the afternoon, they are vulnerable.
The danger is real
We need only look at a couple of incidents to understand just how exposed children are when they’re not on the bus. In March, a 10-year-old Florida girl named Jessica Rodriguez was abducted just moments after she and her sisters were dropped off by the school bus at the end of their long, dirt driveway. Their mother usually met them at the bus stop, but had fallen asleep. Jessica was released three days later by the kidnapper, and police later arrested the man suspected of the crime. Not so lucky was Xiana Fairchild, an 8-year-old girl who was kidnapped last December while walking to her bus stop in Vallejo, Calif. Despite an extensive investigation, she is still missing and police have no suspects. It’s easy to blame the parents for these types of abductions. Why didn’t Jessica’s mother make sure that she was awake to meet her daughters at the bus stop, and why didn’t Xiana’s mother or a guardian escort her to the bus stop? School districts can — and should — minimize the risks to bus-riding students by evaluating their non-bus travel to and from school. Routing and scheduling of bus service should maximize fleet efficiency and minimize risks to the students. Placement of bus stops should take into account the distances that children need to walk, streets that must be crossed and number of children at each gathering point. There’s safety in numbers. Children who must wait alone for the bus are the most vulnerable. Many school districts require that young children be accompanied by a parent or guardian to the bus stop in the morning and met at the bus stop in the afternoon. Although this type of policy can be a burden for families with two working parents, it reduces the district’s liability exposure and, more importantly, safeguards the children.
Drivers can lend a hand
Classroom bus safety training should include discussion of the dangers that children face before and after their bus ride. How to handle contact with strangers is a key issue. Although every child is taught at one time or another to be wary of strangers, this important lesson bears repeating. Drivers should be encouraged to repeat this advice to their younger passengers several times a year. Drivers should also be reminded to watch for suspicious characters or vehicles in the vicinity of a bus stop. If a driver senses immediate danger, he or she should not allow the child to disembark and should report the situation to the police. If the driver’s wrong about the potential threat, no harm done. However, if the driver’s right. . . again, no harm done. We can’t prevent every instance of crime against children, but we should take the opportunity to educate our passengers about dangers beyond the school bus. Every part of the journey from home to school and back again is important, and we need to do what we can to make sure that journey is a safe one.