On the morning of Oct. 3, a Bloomfield (N.M.) School District bus pulled up to a stop and picked up a handful of students on their way to school. After boarding, two sisters, ages 13 and 14, sat down calmly and waited for the vehicle to continue along its route. Then they struck. Reaching over the seat in front of them, the sisters grabbed another 14-year-old girl, held her down and proceeded to pummel her with a flurry of flailing punches and kicks.
Though fights on the school bus are nothing new, this particular incident stood out in its ferocity, and it continued for several minutes, despite futile shouts from the bus driver and nominal intervention on the part of the other passengers. The entire confrontation was captured on video by the bus’ video surveillance system.
“This is the first time I’ve seen something like that,” says Joe Rasor, an administrator with the Bloomfield School District. “And this is my 35th year in education.”
With the assailants facing criminal charges and the school district struggling to find answers for an event that has shaken a small, peaceful community, an unfavorable portrait of school buses has been (once again) thrust into the national spotlight. But after a spate of ugly clashes on school buses has made headlines in the past few years, one can be forgiven for revisiting the age-old question of whether school bus violence has gotten worse.
Assessing the problem
What is perhaps most alarming about the Bloomfield incident was the timing. Just one week earlier, the nation was stunned by three disturbing episodes of scholastic gun violence, resulting in at least nine deaths at schools in Colorado, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, respectively.
Overall, ABC News estimates that there have been 25 shootings in or around schools and their facilities in 2006, with nearly a third of them claiming lives.
According to Dr. Ronald Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center, the recent spike in school-related violence leads to three central questions —all of them apt for school transportation officials:
• Are schools in America safe?
• Do these acts of violence represent a trend?
• What can be done to prevent these types of incidents?
Examining the first question, it must be said that, all in all, school buses represent one of the safest realms of the academic environment. Based on the number of incidents per miles traveled, violent encounters still represent a relative rarity. Moreover, the problem of youth violence and the struggle to slow it are hardly the sole responsibilities of school transportation planners.
The second question, however, is more vexing. The numbers themselves vary, but a general increase in highly visible incidents seems evident. Various organizations, including the Center for the Prevention of School Violence and KeystoSaferSchools.com, claim that violent incidents in American schools (and on school buses) are steadily on the rise, even while law enforcement agencies report drops in violent crime across the entire population.
With specific regard to school transportation, a recent survey by the National Association of School Resource Officers, a school-based policing organization, stated that 35 percent of its members reported seeing an increase in school bus violence last year.
Responding to the wave of violence, President Bush convened a Summit on School Safety in early October, bringing educators, safety experts and legislators together to discuss ways to reverse these alarming trends. Though no clear solution was discovered, conference presenters gravitated around two primary ways to address the problem — better communications and comprehensive planning.
In her opening speech at the summit, U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said it is crucial that school systems have a crisis response plan. She also talked about the importance of communications, citing an incident this year in Green Bay, Wis., where a school shooting was avoided after a student reported to administrators his suspicions that some of his classmates might be planning an attack.
“The failure to talk about the possibility of an incident occurring and the failure to take steps to prevent such an occurrence would be considered negligence in the eyes of most educators, public safety officials, parents, media and courts,” says Ken Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services. “Talking about the possibility of violence in a balanced and rational way does not create fear, but instead it reduces fear, improves preparedness and has resulted in many plots being foiled thanks to a heightened awareness.”
Trump has developed a safety and security plan specifically for school transportation officials, taking into account a wide range of considerations to improve life on school buses. Trump’s plan incorporates pre-employment screening of drivers, behavior management training, technology, security assessments, emergency preparedness guidelines, law enforcement cooperation, communications, crisis intervention training and much more.
Of course, the key to any violence prevention program starts and stops with the bus driver. “The driver must keep one eye on the road and one eye on the mirror overhead,” says Bonnie Russell, executive general manager of transportation for the Houston Independent School District. “It’s critical for them to have appropriate skills to identify developing problems and to use techniques that are proactive to prevent violence.”
Ultimately, there is no magic panacea for preparing drivers, but, in addition to constant training, emphasizing a proactive attitude and heavy interaction with students can help create a safer environment on the bus. According to one former bus driver, “moving around the bus at the school while kids are boarding, watching, aware and alert, and asking questions concerning possible posturing seem to help in all sorts of ways.”
While years of advancements in technology have raised nearly as many questions as they’ve answered, school administrators and transportation officials have a wide range of options at their disposal through which violent encounters can be potentially prevented or addressed more effectively. Some of the obvious and more common technologies in use today include video surveillance, GPS systems and sophisticated radio systems.