In 1976, three armed men hijacked a school bus carrying 26 students in Chowchilla, Calif. After transferring the children and driver into two vans and driving them around for 11 hours, the kidnappers imprisoned them in a moving van they had buried in a quarry about 100 miles away. As the captors were trying to arrange for a $5 million ransom, the driver and some of the older boys managed to dig their way to freedom and summon help after 16 hours underground.

While the infamous Chowchilla kidnapping may not be considered terrorism in the same sense as the multiple bus bombings in Israel, the level of terror on those affected is just as great. The incident also shows that school buses can be prime targets for people with evil intentions.

During times of war or peace, high or low security risks, pupil transporters need to be aware of these potential threats and not assume that their district is out of reach for terrorism.

“In the last few years, this has become very high profile — with 9/11, the sniper attacks in Virginia and Maryland, and the war in Iraq,” says John Green, supervisor of the Office of School Transportation (OST) at the California Department of Education. “That brings it all to the forefront, but we have to be vigilant all the time.”

Train hard
It’s the kind of training you go through and hope you never need. But school bus drivers must be ready to handle an unfriendly intruder, whether it’s a terrorist looking to make a statement or a fugitive looking for a lift.

If an intruder manages to board a bus, the driver’s range of appropriate responses is limited. “There are guidelines for what to do: you cooperate, you don’t try to be a hero,” says Green. “All those things are pretty cut and dry.”

But the most crucial part of the training involves what should have been done before the takeover.

Sgt. Vern Warnke of the Merced (Calif.) County Sheriff’s Department says the key to these situations is to prevent a potentially hostile person from getting inside. “If somebody pulls in front of the bus in a definite attempt to stop it and the driver stops the bus, you can guarantee something bad is going to happen,” says Warnke.

His advice? Drive through or around the problem, get on the radio and call for help.

Warnke, who is also a licensed school bus driver and substitutes occasionally, has set up intense terrorist scenarios with bus drivers at local schools, many of which are in rural areas. But Warnke says this type of training is as important in a small city like Merced as it is for a school district near the nation’s capital because the former will have less help available from police and SWAT teams.

“Most terrorists are looking for numbers, anyways,” says Warnke. “So a school bus filled with 78 country kids is the same as 78 Washington, D.C., kids. Therefore, the training should be beefed up.”

Green teaches an instructor training class that deals with terrorism and hijacking as well as general awareness on the bus. He says that the core of the training is being observant and noticing suspicious people and vehicles. “You don’t look for a guy with a turban and beard carrying an AK-47,” says Green. “It should be the man wearing a black trench coat standing at the school bus stop on a 104-degree day.”

Green says that school bus drivers need to pick up on details. He describes the following scene as an example: You see a van that follows you from one stop to the other and then disappears. What color was it? What was the license number?

“These are things that before we wouldn’t have given a second thought to, but because of our world now, we have to be more aware of them,” says Green.

Keep in touch
In any city, prior contact with police and other emergency officials could prove to be vital if a terrorist situation arises.

At Fairfax (Va.) County Public Schools, transportation staff members have been working with the police, fire and health departments to develop guidelines for how to handle such an emergency.

“We believe that we can quickly formulate plans for dealing with threats and other crises if we can communicate with our people,” says Linda Farbry, director of transportation services.

The department is working to expand its radio system, which already enables communications with emergency agencies across the county. Additionally, managers and supervisors are equipped with cell phones and alpha-numeric pagers.

Efrain Brizuela, a driver for Roberts Hawaii on Oahu, says his company has worked with the Provost Marshall’s Office (PMO) at the local marine base to develop a duress code for the school bus drivers.

Roberts Hawaii transports about 750 military dependents to schools away from the base. Brizuela says that if a person with hostile intentions were on board one of the buses, the driver would use the duress code to signal the gate sentry before entering the base. The PMO would then send an emergency response team to isolate the bus and foil the intruder’s plot.

Since terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda play by different rules than what we in the Western world are used to, it’s not inconceivable to think that a busload of military kids may be a target of opportunity, heaven forbid,” says Brizuela.

Update policies
Emergency plans, whether specific to the school bus department or involving the entire district, may need to be revised in light of recent terrorism concerns.

The Minnesota Association for Pupil Transportation (MAPT) developed a new school bus emergency plan that is open to suggestions and will be a constantly evolving document.

“It’s intended to be a framework where individual contractors and districts can input what they need specific to their operation,” says Tom Meyer of St. Paul Schools, who was a contributor to the plan. “We don’t say specifically, ‘If anthrax is on the bus, this is what you do.’ It’s more of what questions you ask ahead of time to be proactive in dealing with anything that may come up.”

The Minnesota plan can be used by districts and contractors outside the state with permission from the MAPT. To access the document, visit and click on “Drivers.”

Pupil transporters should also consider the emotional effects that past and future terrorist acts may have on students and how drivers should respond to them.

TThe emotional state of the children has been our biggest concern,” says Brendan Clifford, vice president of operations at Huntington Coach Corp. in Huntington Station, N.Y. He says the barrage of media coverage of the war on terror has taken a visible toll on the students.

To this end, Huntington Coach established policies with its drivers on how to deal with students’ anxieties and also instructed them on how to spot signs of depression.

“We ingrained in our drivers the understanding that discussion of terrorism and war-related subjects can stir up strong emotions,” says Clifford. “They have learned to steer discussions in other directions when these subjects arise.”

Beef up security
While some transportation officials refrain from giving specific security information about their programs, there are general measures that all school bus operations should consider if they don’t already have them in place.

Green of the California OST advocates using identification badges to be sure that only the proper people can access the bus yard and transportation offices. ID cards for the students can also help to prevent intruders from sneaking onto the bus during routes.

Onboard surveillance cameras are common additions for inside buses, but cameras can also be used to protect the bus yard in key areas such as gates, doors and fueling stations.

Clifford of Huntington Coach stresses the importance of keeping the buses as secure as possible, even when it’s not the most convenient option. “We have no home-based vehicles, even though it’s a common practice on Long Island due to the cost and lack of availability of real estate,” says Clifford.

In addition to the security advantage, he says this procedure allows the supervisory staff to assess the drivers’ physical and mental state each morning when they report to the office.

Resources galore
With the budget shortfalls many districts are facing, it may seem out of the question to think about paying for surveillance cameras or additional driver training when other programs are being cut.

Accordingly, the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) has set aside $30 million of its FY 2003 budget to help school districts strengthen emergency preparedness. Funds will be distributed through the Emergency Response and Crisis Management Plans Discretionary Grants program. For more information on applying, go to and click on “Programs and Grants.”

Federal agencies can also be resources for a wealth of information on the topic of terrorism. The DOE collaborated with U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge to develop the Website listed above as a “one-stop shop” to help school officials plan for terrorist acts and other violent incidents.

Within each state, the FBI’s Joint Terrorist Task Forces (JTTFs) and the Homeland Security offices are good contacts and sources for info. JTTFs are located in the FBI’s field offices. Go to contact/fo/fo.htm for office locations. For a list of state Homeland Security directors, visit and click on “Government.”

It’s also increasingly important to communicate with national school bus organizations, many of which are working with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to evaluate the awareness and preparedness of the industry.

Says Charlie Gauthier, executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services, “We are very actively involved with the TSA almost day by day — working with them, responding to requests for information and trying to figure out from a national perspective what everyone should be doing to make sure we are prepared for terrorist attacks.”

About the author
Thomas McMahon

Thomas McMahon

Executive Editor

Thomas had covered the pupil transportation industry with School Bus Fleet since 2002. When he's not writing articles about yellow buses, he enjoys running long distances and making a joyful noise with his guitar.

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