Our Drivers Are Family…Treat Them Accordingly

“Essential workers.”

“First people children see every day.”

“Critical to children’s education.”

Most of us have said these things, with good cause, about our school bus drivers…which makes the current rash of violent acts against drivers so hard to reconcile.

As the 2021-22 school year nears the first quarter mark, it has been marked by increased tensions and even violence in classrooms and, specific to our work, on the school bus. We should talk about that a bit.

In this school year, we have witnessed the killing (by stabbing) of Pasco, Washington school bus driver Roland Whitehouse while his students looked on in horror. In recent weeks, we have learned of three parents who dragged a New Orleans school bus driver out of her seat and down the bus stairs where they beat her violently, again in view of her students.

Recently, the NAPT Board of Directors issued a well-thought statement on this issue and urged members across the nation to consider steps they could take to protect drivers as well as students who would be exposed to such acts and at some risk as well. It is with that statement as background that we explore the issue further.

First, we should accept a threshold standard: violence against other human beings is not acceptable. It follows then that violence against others who are serving a public need, especially children, is not acceptable. In fact, some would argue it is even more unacceptable, which we will touch on shortly.

Secondly, in our business, safety is our number one mission and objective. Clearly, the safety and security of school bus drivers (and aides, where applicable) is an essential factor in the safety and security of the children who ride the school bus. If a driver is injured or violated in some way, the children riding that bus are no longer safe. We have a clear obligation to ensure the safety of school bus drivers and to protect them from harm or exposure to risk to the extent possible. 

So, what steps can we take to help ensure the safety of school bus drivers? Here are some possibilities:

Equivalent Treatment for Drivers

We can learn from building-based efforts that affect our teaching corps and facilities staff members. We can begin ensuring that behavioral and violence issues on school buses are treated on par with such acts that occur in classrooms, libraries, gyms, and cafeterias. Note that a student attacking a teacher will be dealt with immediately, including removal from the classroom. And teachers are often assisted by teacher aides and have administrative staff down the hall if the need arises. In fact, given the reality that the school bus is remote and distant from the building and other helpful adults, we need to develop even more thoughtful approaches to such problems. 

Codes of Conduct

This might take expansions of school codes of conduct and discipline programs to include actions taking place on school buses. Many school districts have adopted such codes and principles that apply to all or most of the activities on school property. Some states have enacted laws that require such codes and practices and often require reporting of incidents of violence to the state. How clear is it to the public (and to students in particular) that such codes are applicable on the school bus and that enforcement of the code and/or disciplinary actions can result from misbehavior and violence? Transportation managers owe it to themselves and to their drivers to know the answer to that question and to act accordingly. This means that if there is no clear statement about the school bus, we should be speaking up for inclusion. If there is such a statement, we should be ensuring its enforcement. Sounds simple but it takes work and attentiveness.

Hands-On Presence Counts

It might also take increased hands-on presence of principals and other building officials to demonstrate to student riders that violence or aggressive behaviors are not tolerated. One district in the Capital area of New York was having serious student behavior issues. One day a principal rode the bus and called attention to student behavior and took disciplinary action. Things changed almost immediately. All it took was a signal that someone in authority meant business. The driver was appreciative of the act of recognition by that principal.

Statements from Leadership

We should also be encouraging superintendents and school boards to recognize the value of school bus drivers and to make clear statements about respect for drivers. As leaders, we can also recommend that they consider programs to instill such respect for drivers. Sometimes, just saying the right thing often can correct a problem.

 PTA Involvement

Another strategy for helping to instill respect and positive behavior is to engage the school district’s PTA leadership and members. Local PTA’s can provide positive information to parents which, in turn, can lead to more parents working with their children on such issues. Our efforts can include asking the PTA to help in poster contests or during School Bus Safety Week or Driver Appreciation Week. 

Crimes of Assault

Some states have enacted laws that create crimes of assault that are applied whenever an individual injures a school bus driver in the performance of his or her duties (driving the bus). Moreover, some states have also made it a crime for individuals who board school buses without the approval of the driver or even against the word of the driver. These kinds of laws are worth looking into and provide our drivers a sense that we respect them, and their safety means something to us.

You (Yes, You) Play a Big Role

Lastly, supervisors themselves can make a huge difference in how the public and students view and treat their drivers. Some soul-searching may be needed here. The days should be over when complaining about school bus drivers is a sport. These are days when we should be rewarding and publicly recognizing school bus drivers for the work they do and the safety they bring to our children. And when it’s time to talk budgets, think about what you need to improve the working conditions for your drivers.

There are a lot of ideas and perspectives for us all to consider but our drivers are important. In these times when we do not have enough drivers, we need to do all we can to ensure that they stay with us and are safe and satisfied in their jobs.

Thank a school bus driver today! Make their world a better place!

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