Photo courtesy National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

Photo courtesy National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

Security is a concern for all school employees, including school bus drivers. We were once again reminded of this with the tragic school shooting in Parkland, Florida, in which 17 students and school staff members were killed on Feb. 14.

Broward County (Fla.) Public Schools’ transportation department served a vital role in responding to the shooting, which occurred at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Drivers transported students and staff away from the scene to a hotel designated as a meeting place to reunite with parents, family, and friends.

In the weeks that followed, the transportation department continued to support students and staff by providing transportation to resources and services for students, parents, and the community during the recovery process. Flexible bus scheduling was available for students returning to school on a phased reopening schedule, says Kay Blake, the assistant director of the district’s student transportation and fleet services department.

In the wake of the tragedy, the district is reviewing its standard practices and procedures. The transportation department is working with district leaders to develop a plan that includes short- and long-term solutions that will impact student transportation emergency and crisis operations and safety measures, says Nadine Drew, a spokeswoman for the district.

Amid a sensitive national debate over how to eradicate school violence, concerns have very likely turned toward securing school buses. Here are some tips and insights from experts on how to help keep school buses and sites secure, and manage students’ concerns about their safety.

1. Empower Bus Drivers

Taking a more comprehensive approach that involves all school staff members and doing more to empower school bus drivers are two steps  recommended by Dr. Stephen Sroka, president of Health Education Consultants, adjunct assistant professor at the School of Medicine at Case Western Reserve University, and longtime school safety expert.

When Sroka gave his presentation “The Power of One, the Power of Many” at the Oregon Pupil Transportation Association (OPTA) Winter Workshop in Eugene on Feb. 24 to more than 800 school bus drivers, he was struck by a statement from a driver in the audience and the reaction to it.
“[She] said something really powerful: ‘When you get on my bus, you are part of my family. If I need to, I will die for you.’ I asked the group how many of them would die for their students. Just about every hand went up.”

That degree of dedication illustrates Sroka’s point that bus drivers are essential to safety plans.

“School safety is a concern for everyone, not just the school resource officer or the principal,” Sroka says. “Everyone has to be involved, and one of the key people is the bus driver.”

This is particularly important because he has found that students sometimes feel more comfortable talking to their bus driver than to their counselor.

“The driver sees them every day. A counselor may only be in the school once a week, if at all,” Sroka explains. “If a kid has a bad day, who is the first person to have that on their radar? The driver.”

2. Secure the Location

Buses should be parked in a secure area, says Gary Moore, safety specialist at Missouri School Boards’ Association. He recommends that transportation departments take advantage of the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA’s) free security assessments for schools.

Pre-trip inspections should also be conducted consistently and thoroughly, Moore adds.

Other TSA location security tips include locking the bus, if possible; not leaving it unattended or out of sight; and looking for out-of-place items such as a canister, propane-style tank, metal box, or bottle.

3. Pay Attention to “JDLRs”

Drivers should check on details they notice on or around the bus that “Just Don’t Look Right” (JDLRs) and notify authorities.

Examples of JDLRs include a student on the bus being dressed completely differently for no specific occasion; a backpack or bookbag left on the bus; or a vehicle following the bus for no known reason, Moore says.

A student bringing a new backpack or a band equipment case aboard and being secretive about it could be another JDLR. In that case, Moore advises engaging with the student. If a student has a new band instrument case, a driver could say, ‘I didn’t know you played guitar. I love guitars. Can I see it?’

“Most kids will show you. If they don’t, that’s a JDLR,” Moore notes.

He also recommends watching the hands of anyone who seems suspicious.

“If someone is angry or upset and [their hands] suddenly disappear into their pocket or behind their back, or they reach into their backpack, watch and be ready,” he says. “Also, watch if they keep touching a shirt pocket or a waistband, or the same spot. Something there is important; is it a gun, a knife?”

When spotting suspicious items or behavior, the TSA recommends immediately calling 911; refraining from using radios or cell phones within 300 feet of the item; noting its location; and not moving or touching the item. When reporting, be prepared to include the location, and the physical appearance, gender, and unusual characteristics of any people involved.

Additionally, Moore says, never let any unauthorized person on the bus. Instead, offer to discuss their issue off the bus, and when they get off, shut the door and report the incident. If they succeed in boarding the bus, demonstrate a willingness to listen and be calm. Use physical force only as a last resort, and commit to your actions.

Responding to an Active Shooter

Outside the bus, if confronted by an active shooter, or if one is in the vicinity, the TSA advises quickly determining the most reasonable way to protect your own life.

Here are more tips from the TSA on how people can protect themselves in such a situation:

1. Run
•    Have an escape route and plan in mind.
•    Leave your belongings behind.
•    Keep your hands visible.

2. Hide
•    Choose an area out of the active shooter’s view.
•    Block entry to your hiding place and lock the doors.

3. Fight
•    This should be a last resort, only when your life is in imminent danger.
•    Attempt to incapacitate the active shooter.
•    Act with physical aggression and throw items at the active shooter.

Call 911 when it is safe to do so.

4. Reassure, Involve Students

Drivers should have safety procedures for all hazards, and tell students they are as safe as they can be right now. Sroka encourages including them in the safety program by telling them that “we can work together to make this bus as safe as possible.”

 “Let kids know that if they see something, say something, because you’re trying to keep everyone safe,” he adds.

If an intruder succeeds in boarding the bus, the driver should demonstrate a willingness to listen and be calm. Pictured here is an armed intruder training that took place at Houston (Texas) Independent School District.

If an intruder succeeds in boarding the bus, the driver should demonstrate a willingness to listen and be calm. Pictured here is an armed intruder training that took place at Houston (Texas) Independent School District.

5. Look and Listen Before You Talk

Focus on students’ concerns before responding. People often give solutions before understanding the problem as a way of addressing their needs and not the student’s, Sroka says.

6. Model Good Behavior by Keeping Calm

In a challenging or crisis situation, “be concerned, but [control] your fear,” Sroka adds. “You have to remember that you are in control, so you have to be a model for the kids.”

7. Use Age- and Value-Appropriate Messages

Sroka advises that discussion on safety issues should align with the school’s procedures and what is appropriate for the community.

8. Maintain Routine in a Crisis

Routines give comfort and support. Whenever possible, keeping schools open during a crisis is a good idea, because mental health staff members can support students, Sroka notes.

“Many times kids will feel more comfortable around people who know what to say and do. It’s good to get into a supportive, comfortable [environment] like a school,” he says.

9. Greet Each Student by Name

Sroka also recommends practicing the two “S”s: “Say hi” and “Smile.”

10. Maintain the Three “H”s: Honesty, Humor, and Hope

“These are things that kids really want to hear,” Sroka says.

Securing the Bus Yard

Shown here is the NEDAP combi booster reader from NEDAP Identification Systems, in use at Hollister (Mo.) R-V Public Schools.

Shown here is the NEDAP combi booster reader from NEDAP Identification Systems, in use at Hollister (Mo.) R-V Public Schools.

A Missouri school district has seen success in implementing technology that enables only authorized bus drivers to enter and leave the premises with their assigned vehicles, to prevent theft or hijacking of a bus.

Two years ago, Hollister R-V Public Schools installed a device in its school buses called a combi booster: a rear transmitter device with its own identification that allows the school to use a standard access credential, like building access cards, to secure the buses and the yard, says Gorm Tuxen, business development partner for NEDAP Identification Systems, which makes and installs the technology.

Bus drivers insert their building access card into the device on the bus, and it communicates with a reader on the bus yard’s perimeter so that the gate only opens if it has the right combination of bus and driver for that allocated time slot to enter or exit the yard.

With the combi booster device, drivers don’t have to open or reach out a window. The long-range reader senses the vehicle approaching, and the gate will start opening as the driver approaches the perimeter.

“The vehicle keeps moving through the barrier, which eliminates a potential attack point for someone [trying to] capture the vehicle, and legitimate vehicles move to the safe side of the perimeter,” Tuxen says.

“The NEDAP identification system allows us to not only easily access and secure our bus yard, but also to know who is driving by employing [NEDAP’s] Dual-ID technology, which can prevent a stolen credential from being used for access,” says Sean Woods, assistant superintendent of the district.

About the author
Nicole Schlosser

Nicole Schlosser

Former Executive Editor

Nicole was an editor and writer for School Bus Fleet. She previously worked as an editor and writer for Metro Magazine, School Bus Fleet's sister publication.

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