School Bus Drivers Trying To Keep the Peace

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Pulling out of the parking lot of Starr Elementary School in Oregon, Ohio, with a busload of 50 students was just part of the daily routine for veteran school bus driver Shirley Sullivan.

But one day this month, as she approached a busy intersection, the increasing noise level of the students caused her to pull the bus into a day-care center's parking lot to calm the students down.

It was not an unprecedented move by the driver. And similar scenes get played out on school buses around the country every school day, as unruly or merely high-spirited youngsters force drivers to play disciplinarian and amateur child psychologist.

"Discipline is one of the most serious problems we face," said Bette Norris, the director of driver development, safety, and training for passenger services with Laidlaw Transit Inc., the nation's largest school bus contractor. "A split-second distraction can set up an accident."

For drivers of the 400,000 school buses on the road, student management ranks just behind safety and driving instruction as a critical issue, according to the National School Transportation Association, a Springfield, Va.-based group representing school transportation contractors.

Burlington, Ontario-based Laidlaw, which transports nearly 2.2 million U.S. and Canadian students every school day, says its potential drivers must have 20 hours of student management and discipline training.

Before a potential driver can get behind the wheel, he or she must spend time in class learning discipline techniques, watch videos on student management, and observe other school bus drivers in action, according to Ms. Norris.

Each of the company's 45,000 drivers is evaluated at least twice a year, and most of Laidlaw's buses have video cameras on board. And although drivers are provided with preliminary training through contractors, they must also be trained to follow district discipline policies and procedures.

"There are as many different policies on discipline as there are school districts," Ms. Norris said.

While districts have their own policies, most school systems also provide in-service training to bus drivers, part of which helps them to deal with students, said Gary Marx, a senior associate executive director at the American Association of School Administrators in Arlington, Va.

Most contractors have their drivers follow the rules in the Handbook of Basic Student Transportation Contract Language and Explanations, provided by the school transportation association. According to the handbook, contractors' drivers are responsible only for such discipline as is required to safely and properly operate buses. Drivers are told to handle disciplinary matters in strict accordance with district policy.

But school bus drivers are not without recourse. Although they are not allowed to take discipline into their own hands, they may act reasonably--stop the bus, return to the school, or write student discipline reports--to maintain student order.

Trouble on the Road

And incidents do occur. Last month, a school bus driver in Omaha, Neb., was fired for ordering elementary school pupils off his bus. And, also in September, a driver in Greenville, S.C., made a detour to the Greenville County Law Enforcement Center after rowdy students refused to calm down. The driver got a police escort so that she could complete the rest of her route.

Even when drivers have received proper training and know district policy, they still have to contend with 40 to 50 students in one contained area. That was the case for Ms. Sullivan.

Despite having eight years of driving experience under her belt, things got out of hand for the Ohio driver after she stopped her bus to regain order, according to district officials.

Some parents went to the day-care center parking lot, but a bus aide sent to the scene by district officials refused to let them take their children off the bus because of a district policy. Once students are on a bus, they may not be released until they reach their destination, the policy states.

The incident snowballed, said Vicki Laurell, the director of transportation for the 4,000-student Oregon, Ohio, school district. And what started as a measure the driver took to maintain discipline led to parents' claiming the driver was holding students hostage, she said.

When parents, administrators, and the driver met to talk about the incident, district officials--who felt that Ms. Sullivan had acted appropriately--stood behind her.

In essence, there is a triangle of responsibility for school bus discipline that involves the parents, the district, and the driver, Ms. Norris of Laidlaw said. But, "the driver has the primary challenge."

"Riding the bus is an extension of the school day. ... The same thing can happen to a bus driver as a school teacher."

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