Sunday, October 17, 2010

School Bus Safety -- commentary

Three recent school bus accidents in Arkansas prompt me to again mount my hobby horse of school bus safety. There are many things we could do to make school buses safer. We could make the seat backs higher. We could put seat belts on every seat. We could put air bags at every seat. Every one of these has serious unintended consequences. We could put a trained, adult monitor on every bus.

Every one of these suggestions is expensive and every dollar spent on them takes away from something else in the educational system, and there is never enough money to do the necessary things for many school districts.

What we are dealing with in most school bus accidents is a distracted driver. Distracted drivers are big in the news lately because of ever increasing cell phone use. A school bus driver should have enough sense not to use a cell phone while driving; however, the legislature deemed it necessary to make it illegal.

Yet, the bigger distraction remains: The behavior of the students behind the driver. Every second the driver looks in his mirror to monitor student behavior is a second he is not looking at the road. At 30 mph, that bus travels 44 feet for every second that driver’s attention is not on the road. The solution to this problem requires a change of attitude on the part of school administrators.

Administrators, here is a common sense solution that won’t cost a dime: Quit treating school bus discipline the same way you treat classroom discipline. Make it a zero tolerance matter. Any misbehavior on the school bus should mean a forfeiture of bus privileges, starting with the first infraction.

The average classroom is about 750 square feet and by law can only accommodate 30 students, fewer in some elementary grades. The classroom is headed by a teacher who has been trained in classroom management. Plus the teacher has several ways to handle misbehavior from standing next to the disruptive student, to moving the student, to isolating him, to removing him from the classroom.

The average 200 square foot school bus, however, can legally accommodate 60 passengers or more. It often travels down the road at the speed limit. The driver must not only drive the bus safely, but must also manage the load, which distracts from the driving and which he is usually not trained to do.

When considering the potential outcome stemming from disorderly behavior in the classroom verses on the bus, common sense says there is no way these two should be treated the same when it comes to punishment. Normal classroom misbehavior should be thought a misdemeanor and bus misbehavior a felony. Yet, the most common complaint of school bus drivers is that discipline is not taken seriously.

While the law says your child must go to school, it does not compel the school to provide transportation. Riding a school bus is a privilege that should be readily taken away.

There was a time when students respected authority more than they do today, and often older high school kids were hired to drive the buses. The duty often fell to the kid who lived at the end of the route. The students respected the young driver’s authority. We probably cannot bring those days back, but we can put the trouble makers off the bus, thus making the ride safer for the rest of the riders. But, most schools won’t take such a drastic action until a student has been written up for disruptive behavior several times. As a result, neither the student nor his parents, take the matter seriously, knowing he gets several chances.

It only takes one distraction to cause an accident. When the bus driver has to look in his rear view mirror to monitor student misbehavior, his eyes are not on the road and his attention is not on his driving.

I was at a training session recently, and we got on this topic. A fellow from St. Croix in the Caribbean related when he was a kid, the school met bus discipline by simply eliminating the entire route for a period of time. That was certainly a bit extreme since most kids really do behave themselves on the bus. But it certainly should be used individually, starting with the first offense.

The only way to solve this problem is with parental involvement and nothing will get them involved quicker than having to deliver their own kids to school. And if that doesn’t get them involved, then the kid needs to walk. Just as it was not fair for the school in St. Croix to punish all the kids, neither is it fair for us to jeopardize all the kids over the misbehavior of a few.

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