Hal Taylor, Cleveland City Schools’ maintenance and transportation director, and Paul Ramsey, energy education specialist, approached Cleveland’s Board of Education with the safety update.
He said 80 to 90 percent of the roughly 2,450 students riding the buses are behaving. The remaining 10 to 20 percent are the ones causing distractions. This means about one to three students are misbehaving on some buses rather than every bus and every child.
“As parents, you can imagine having two or three children in your back seat and how many times you’ve threatened to stop the car if they don’t settle down. Think about it as a bus driver,” Ramsey said. “Imagine 60 or 70 students in your back seat and you can’t even reach the ones behind you. There is a lot of noise and movement and a 20-ton bus you are driving down the road.”
According to Ramsey, school systems across the nation are facing similar issues. Other systems have responded with paid bus monitors, incentive programs and teachers volunteering for ride-a-longs. The city school system is looking to add weight behind their referral system. Students could be suspended from riding the bus, if misconduct continued.
He reminded the board that students have a right to an education, but not necessarily a right to transportation.
“This board funds transportation. That is not something we have to provide,” Ramsey said. “Transportation is a privilege, and we want parents to remember that.”
Taylor said misbehaving students and other stress factors are negatively impacting driver retention.
“We are losing [bus drivers] faster than I can replace them. The No. 1 reason we hear of why we are losing them is student behavior,” Taylor said. “Again, we are not talking about the whole bus. We are usually talking about a minority.”
There are currently 30 bus drivers for 28 routes in the city system. The two additional bus drivers are used as substitutes. Routes are split between the 19 regular routes and the nine special needs routes.
Two bus drivers have quit since January. An additional three bus drivers considered quitting before Taylor’s involvement. All three were new bus drivers.
According to Taylor, there are only four veteran drivers with at least 15 years of experience. Most of the veteran drivers are assigned to the special needs routes. These routes have proven to have fewer behavioral problems.
The remaining 15 drivers have less than three years of experience.
“Bus drivers are not easy to find,” Taylor said. “It costs about $900 to hire a single bus driver.”
All bus driver applicants are expected to have a Tennessee Driver’s License, a PS endorsement, a CDL license and take a free employment drug test. All drivers must be at least 21 years old to man a school bus. Taylor said the last three hires have been former truck drivers.
The entire process costs applicants roughly $300 in costs and time.
Taylor shared the story of one of the recent bus drivers who quit.
“She was going along and traffic was heavy so she was spending more attention on the road. She started feeling the bus shaking and rocking. She looked in the back in her rearview mirror and students were standing up doing the Harlem Shake on the bus,” Taylor said. “She had to yell because, of course, they are singing at the same time they are doing the dance.”
Continued Taylor, “It distracted her and it caused her to have what she considered to be a near miss.”
Two weeks later the bus driver said she could not continue.
“She quit because she said, ‘I could have killed those children,’” Taylor said. “She said she could not live with the idea that she could have been responsible because she didn’t pay attention [due to the distraction].”
Ramsey said potential changes include shortening the routes by placing middle and high school students together. High school students tend to have much lower behavioral issues than middle school students. He said middle school students may also be less likely to act out around high school students.
Increased training for bus drivers is another priority. Ramsey said everyone from principals to students will be informed about proper bus behavior and consequences of misbehavior.
A final suggestion was to place monitors on the school buses. Valerie Mack, assistant manager of transportation, said it costs $6,000 a year to maintain one bus monitor. A bus monitor from the special needs route who services were no longer needed has since moved to the general routes. There has been a marked improvement of behavior on the buses she monitors.
School board members asked Taylor and Ramsey to keep them up-to-date. Both were requested to speak again at the June school board meeting.
“The bus driver’s purpose must be safety first,” Taylor said. “The misbehavior of a few students must not jeopardize the well-being of all students and the driver.”