Photo by Michael Sevon

Photo by Michael Sevon

The recent release of a questionable story about school bus safety sparked a smoldering frustration among some in school transportation. There has even been an industry-wide call to arms, so to speak, encouraging people to express their feelings and voice their displeasure.

So, should we go after CBS News and correspondent Kris Van Cleave for what they said? (See “CBS News investigation finds stunning lack of oversight of school bus drivers.") I’m not so sure.

Keep in mind as you read on from here that this is coming from someone who has tilted at plenty of windmills.

I’ve done battle with corporate giants like Radio Shack, Toyota, Nissan, and Microsoft and with agencies like the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration that, in my view, crossed the line. I’ve also taken on the media when necessary.

In other words, I am not afraid to fight, and you’ve seen me prove it for nearly 25 years. But I think we have to take a hard look in the mirror before we begin swinging this time.

Believe me, I wasn’t any happier to watch that report than any of you were. Like you, I’m frustrated for the variety of reasons that have been articulated by other angry people in our community.

The way I look at it, though, is that if we put even one sexual predator or child molester behind the wheel of a school bus full of children, that’s one too many. And, as Van Cleave pointed out, it appears to happen more than 50 times a year. That should be unacceptable to everyone in our industry, and what we should be doing right now is trying to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

Military bases often have signs urging “Zero Defects.” I think we should be committed to that goal, too. NAPT’s recent launch of the School Bus Driver Judgment and Risk Index is an effort to do just that — to make sure we hire the best and make sure they remain the best.

Even though we face a severe shortage of drivers, we must keep our standards high; in fact, I think we should strive to increase them, particularly now.

But maybe that’s just me.  

Mike Martin is executive director of NAPT.

Mike Martin is executive director of NAPT.

By the same token, I think the real question for us is not “Why did CBS call us out like that?” The real question is “Why is it so hard to talk about this issue objectively?”

To some degree, the fact that those incidents really happened is as unsettling to us as the fact that they were reported. We are intent on emphasizing the good that we do and the safety practices that we espouse. Safety is not just what we do; it’s who we are. Anyone who questions that is an adversary.
But if we do not allow ourselves a moment of clarity to see and appreciate the other side of the issue, we do ourselves and our children a disservice.

I offer for your consideration the recent public relations challenges faced by the U.S. Navy, which has been dealt a tremendous blow to its history and pride with the collisions in mid-sea of two significant ships, The Fitzgerald and The McCain. American sailors lost their lives in those episodes, so we mourn them as a nation and are frustrated as citizens and taxpayers that a preventable tragedy happened at all. 

But we also now have to take a hard look at the training and systems management being implemented by our Navy leadership and the leaders aboard those ships. And that hard look will be a very public one because of the public investment of treasure and talent in our Navy.

Our industry needs to be willing to take that same hard look at everything we do. That means owning the fact that there are occasions when someone has put a sexual predator or child molester behind the wheel of a school bus full of children. And that’s simply unacceptable.

Our job #1 is to keep safe the children entrusted to us, and to whatever degree CBS News was accurate, it is clear that there are gaps in our safety programs that need to be found and closed. We must allow ourselves to learn from mistakes and problems. For, in truth, that is what we believe and how we have always acted.

In closing, I encourage all of you to be mindful of your role not only as pupil transportation professionals but as potential newsmakers. Our “cargo,” as some like to call the children who ride our school buses, is precious to every American and every family. When you work for the public, especially with children, you should not expect the media to provide a favorable perspective about you, about what you do, or about how well you do it.  

If they do, that’s great. But if they don’t, at least you won’t be surprised.