When Laura Hill, routing and planning manager for Hillsborough County (Fla.) Public Schools, started reworking bus routes in January 2017, she wondered if there were neighborhood conflicts she didn’t know about.
For answers, Hill turned to John Newman, the school district’s chief of security, who then enlisted the help of local law enforcement. The ensuing collaboration between law enforcement and the school district’s transportation department resulted in more than information sharing — it ended the school district’s worst school bus disciplinary problems.
“Law enforcement deals with conflict daily that we don’t know about until there is an issue on the bus,” Hill says. “We don’t know if the problems are related to gang activity, and that’s why we sought their help.”
Resolving the school bus discipline problems called for an elegantly simple solution: changing the routes so students from rival gangs weren’t on the same bus.
Tampa-based Hillsborough County Public Schools is one of Florida’s largest school districts. It has 980 bus routes that cover 1,063 square miles.
To address severe school bus disciplinary problems — fights that required the driver to stop and call the police — Hill needed to get all five law enforcement jurisdictions that feed into the school system involved. She sent out email invitations. Then Newman, formerly the Tampa Police Department’s assistant chief, added his weight to Hill’s request.
It wasn’t a hard sell.
“Law enforcement were appreciative that we invited them to the table,” says Jim Beekman, the school district’s general manager of transportation. “They are usually on the back side and have to respond to incidents. Now they could be more pre-emptive.”
At the first three meetings, which were attended by representatives from all the law enforcement jurisdictions, including their gang units, Hill shared her goals: making the school bus environment safer and reducing the number of school bus incidents that required law enforcement intervention. Then, the police identified the neighborhoods’ territorial units.
Next, Hill held small group meetings, where law enforcement’s street units provided street-level information on neighborhood conflicts.
An Insider’s View
With law enforcement’s insights, Hill got an insider’s knowledge of current and potential trouble spots.
For example, the police have data on the number of reported crimes in a location, ex-prisoners living in a neighborhood, and the people who identify themselves with gangs, according to Newman. They also know the neighborhoods where gangs exist.
By combining hard data with their street smarts, the police link people and events. An issue at a specific location may lead to other problems down the road, such as fights between school kids, Newman notes.
“While all we see are bus stops on routes, the police bring criminal data, their experience, and their sense of the streets,” Newman says. “We don’t understand the dynamics that might be assigned to that geography, but law enforcement has a really intimate idea of the neighborhoods our buses are going through, good or bad.”
Not only did police share their street savvy, they also helped Hill fine-tune the routes.
“Law enforcement was able to say, ‘You want to make sure you don’t have someone from that neighborhood riding with someone from this neighborhood, because that could potentially be a problem,’” Newman says. “That’s called deconfliction.”
“We went from five days a week to zero days a week of calling for police assistance for the buses on the targeted routes.”
Laura Hill, routing and planning manager
Hillsborough County (Fla.) Public Schools
In this first year, Hill deconflicted the routes with the most disciplinary problems: 14 to middle schools and one to an alternative school.
With law enforcement’s input, Hill used Hillsborough County Public Schools’ routing software to draw boundaries that separated students in neighborhoods with potential conflicts. Route specialists then reviewed stops in these boundaries and created routes that kept students who could clash from riding the same bus.
“We reworked bus routes to separate those neighborhoods that might have conflicts,” Hill says. “We made boundaries where the conflicts were and kept the kids apart.”
The rerouting, which added no new buses or additional routes, had no financial impact for the school district.
“We didn’t add stops or buses,” Beekman says. “We just shifted. The buses were already in their zones. We just broke down the assignments differently. They still met their umbrella for time to pick up and deliver.”
With the school year just half over, the rerouting has already proven to be successful.
“We went from five days a week to zero days a week of calling for police assistance for the buses on the targeted routes,” Hill says. “The fights — those are gone now.”
Hill is anticipating more route changes in the future, and she counts on law enforcement’s help to make the rerouting effective.
“We want to know what is going on to protect our kids,” she says. “We want our kids and drivers to have the safest ride possible.”