Learning From a Moment of Trauma

It was February 9, 2004.  A gunman opened fire in my daughter’s high school. No fatalities.  A special ed teacher was shot and injured and an assistant principal tackled the shooter to end the incident.  

I remember driving to the school with my ‘flip phone’ in hand hoping to hear from my daughter on her newly acquired similar phone.  I got to the school and stood among hundreds of other anxious parents, all praying that our children were safe and unharmed.  It took about 20 minutes till my phone chirped and there was a text: “Hi.  Getting on buses and going to another school.  I’m OK. Luv u.”  

And then I looked around and watched hundreds of high school kids – lost, dazed, and confused – walk to yellow school buses that would safely transport them away from the scene.

I’ve watched dozens of similar scenes on TV and on-line as those ubiquitous school buses are marshalled to the scene to carry traumatized children traumatized safely away from the crime scene.  And each time, I have asked two questions: (1) how are the drivers coping with the grief, fear, and emotions of the children who they care so much about? and (2) what if that shooting had been on a school bus?

Those questions grip me to this day.  The came to mind again as I watched the devastating murder of innocent children in Uvalde, Texas, painfully reminiscent of the horrific killings in Newtown, Connecticut, just ten years prior.

This is not an essay on shootings in schools. Consider it more of an initial call to begin discussions about the effects of such violence and incidents in our world of yellow school buses.  

First, let’s talk about the question of the impact of these events on drivers.  Our drivers are trained for all sorts of emergencies and situations that can happen on a school bus: fires, collisions, traffic jams, student fights, deflated tires, sick kids and more. But having to board students who have just left their classrooms having heard gunshots or seen injured students or staff is in a category of its own.  No one prepares them for that moment.  

Just like no one prepared school bus drivers in Newtown for that first day back in mid-January 2013, just weeks after the shooting in December 2012.  I recall seeing a picture of a school bus and the driver in his seat and wondering how that driver was feeling and what words he was using and whether he was as lost as the kids were. 

Given that we do our work in a society that seems prone to violent incidents, it’s crucial that we think about and act upon these kinds of questions.  That is who we have always been.  We think and plan and resolve to action.  We learn from incidents and accidents and mistakes, and we get better. It is who we are.  I would offer that we need to spend time on what educators refer to as ‘social-emotional’ training as well as ‘trauma-informed’ training for our drivers and aides.  They are our front line and deserve to be prepared.  They care about our children and would always want to know how best to assist them and support them.  

Frankly, it’s unfair to our drivers that we have not spent more time on this issue and need.  I note that many schools provide teachers and instructional staff with such training but very often do not include bus drivers. I feel a moment of advocacy coming on and you should too.  We need as an industry to begin offering our front-line team – our drivers – the tools they need to manage these kinds of situations.  This includes training, counselling when needed, networking with other drivers and inclusion in school-wide programming so they feel a part of the team.

As for my second question, there is the matter of violent incidents on school buses, in particular the prospect of an active shooter boarding the bus.  To my mind, our industry has not necessarily completed its due diligence on issues attendant to the moment when an active shooter boards or tries to board a school bus.  That will be the topic of another article and will focus on the design and safety materials of the school bus, the circumstances and roles of the bus driver and any attending aides and more.  These are sensitive topics to consider but we cannot ignore them, especially in today’s social and educational environment.  Our school leaders and parents will be exploring ways to keep our children safe inside their schools and WE must engage in those same conversations to ensure that the school bus is included in those broader policy discussions. 

To be fair, the topic has been discussed and explored at several industry conferences at the state and national association levels.  NAPT has run many workshops and roundtables on ways to keep buses secure.  We have explored policies and practices on preventing and responding to active shooter scenarios, including table-top exercises and live-action events with local police SWAT teams.  Importantly, we have recently hosted a webinar with the TSA and AASA on school cyber-security and have maintained a strong relationship with TSA on school security.  (Note that TSA has created an ‘After Action Report’ that NAPT will be sharing with members in June.)

Continuing our long history of educating our members on these issues, NAPT also will be including an Emergency Preparedness and Response session as a part of The Nashville Road Show that will highlight industry experts from the State of Tennessee. In response to earlier-identified needs, NAPT created new Professional Development Series (PDS) courses (the 900 series) on security assessments and crisis communications. 

Our overriding mission as an industry has always been to do everything possible to keep our student riders safe on the school bus. I view these elements as a part of our loyalty to that mission. I hope you will join me in that view and in future pieces that engage us in exploring ways to ensure that safety.

Peter Mannella (pfman5@gmail.com) is chair of the NAPT Public Policy Committee.