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.
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.
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.