“Hi, Dad!” my son called as he and other youngsters filed through the school gate.
I asked Tommy how his day was as we walked along the school parking lot, passing a pair of small, yellow buses that gleamed in the afternoon sunlight.
Just over a year ago, Tommy would have boarded one of those buses for the ride home, and I wouldn’t be here. But now, I was adding to the traffic around the school and taking my son home in my car, which is statistically not as safe as a school bus. Tommy still qualifies for free school bus service, but we’re not making use of it.
The irony is not lost on me. I’m the editor of a magazine that covers school bus transportation, which federal data have shown to be the safest way to transport students — all the while reducing traffic — and here I was driving to my son’s school to pick him up.
The reason that Tommy is not riding the school bus ties in with several key issues for the pupil transportation community, including driver retention, behavior management, special needs, and even routing.
Tommy, now 9, attends a special-education program at a school across town. His IEP specifies that he’s entitled to free transportation.
Without going into too much detail, Tommy experiences extreme anxiety related to learning and developmental disabilities, making many ordinary parts of life difficult for him. When he started attending his current school about two years ago, he was nervous about riding the school bus for the first time, but his driver helped assuage his fears.
His driver, Mary, talked with my wife and got to know our son. She spoke reassuringly to him, taught him how to use the three-point belt in his bus seat, addressed concerns that came up during the ride, and dropped him off safely at our house at the end of the day. He still wasn’t thrilled about being on the bus, but Mary made him comfortable enough to keep riding.
Then, a few months after Tommy started riding, Mary left. On her last day, she told my wife that she had taken a full-time position in another line of work. Although she loved working with kids as a school bus driver, her new job would provide better benefits and more hours, so she could make a more livable income.
As she dropped off Tommy at our house for the last time, she hugged him and gave him a present: a puzzle with a picture of a hippopotamus, an animal that she knew he liked. It was a sweet moment, but as she drove off, we were left with the uncertainty of what lay ahead.
After Mary’s departure, a series of substitute drivers covered Tommy’s route. It seemed that each new driver couldn’t initially find where we live. As Tommy sat buckled into his seat on board, the bus would pass by our street, and Tommy would panic, gripped with the fear that he was never going to make it home. Another student on the bus seized on Tommy’s fear and began teasing him about it, compounding the problem.
Suddenly, the school bus had become our son’s biggest source of anxiety. After several stressful days, we gave in and let him stop riding the bus.
I’ve been reluctant to write about this topic, partly because of the personal nature of it, but also because some readers may consider me a hypocrite for not insisting that my son ride the school bus.
Ultimately, I felt that our story would provide some valuable insights into the experience of a special-needs student, the importance of retaining good drivers in an improving job market, and the difficult decisions parents often face. As my wife put it, we have to pick our battles, and this is not one that we need to fight right now. We can work around it.
At school, as we walked past the pair of yellow buses, a classmate on board yelled out, “Bye, Tommy!”
I asked my son if he might be ready to ride the bus again sometime.
“Maybe,” he said, but quickly corrected himself: “I mean no!”
I’ll save that “maybe” for another day.