I have watched the stream of first-day-of-school photos flood social media these last couple of weeks, and all these beautiful, shiny children, smiling with carefully chosen too-large-to-fail backpacks have made me look forward to my son starting school next year.
To me, the defining moment of my son’s first day of school will be when I watch him get on the bus and wave goodbye until the bus turns the corner. Until a few days ago, my biggest qualm about him getting on the bus was that I didn’t know how I could put on a brave face when all I will probably want to do is cry.
But when the bus horror stories started popping up in my newsfeed, I started to have a lot more second thoughts about putting him on the bus. The anecdotes I heard from mothers I personally know include:
1. Bus was almost an hour late because the driver didn’t show up for work.
2. Bus showed up late with black smoke spewing from the exhaust and the radio was broken. The bus company could not reach the driver when they were trying to locate the bus.
3. Bus dropped off a child with special needs at the wrong place.
4. Bus got into an accident moments after picking up a friend’s child.
Any one of those would have been pretty alarming on its own, but the cumulative effect of seeing them all described within a few days of each other shook my faith in school buses. Until then, I had not grasped the enormity of the decision to send my children to school on a bus: It’s literally putting their lives in someone else’s hands. I suddenly wanted to know more about those hands.
I had assumed–and still do–that bus drivers need to pass a driving exam, maintain good safety records, undergo a thorough background check, get tested for drugs, and receive training in how to handle emergencies and discipline children. But then why so many snafus the first week of school? With so much riding on first impressions, shouldn’t they have practiced the bus routes, run maintenance checks on the buses, and taken every precaution to make the first week back to school go smoothly? This begs the question: What should I and other parents know about and/or demand of school buses to keep our children out of harm’s way?
Most of us would never put our children into a stranger’s car who didn’t have a proper seat belt, but we blindly trust anyone who pulls up in a yellow bus. As far as I know, school bus seat belts are optional in most US states. Where I live, Connecticut, the state created a fund four years ago to offer financial incentives for purchasing school buses with 3-point harness seat belts after a student was killed in a horrific bus accident on the highway near my home. However, not only did the legislation fall short of requiring seat belts, the incentives didn’t apply to retrofitting existing buses nor were they large enough to make it worthwhile for anyone to replace their fleet. Adding insult to injury, I believe that the seat belt fund was recently raided to balance the state budget.
I imagine that in some places the school buses are run by the school district, but around here subcontractors operate them. I called one of them and discovered that although the drivers are trained in first aid, they are prohibited from administering EpiPens. In the event of a child’s severe allergic reaction, they are instructed to call the dispatcher to report it. I thought this was quite odd because in many emergencies, including an anaphylactic emergency, every second is critical, and EpiPens are pretty much idiot-proof. I am aware of other bus operators training their drivers to administer EpiPens, so when the bus company spokesperson claimed that the state prohibited them from doing so, I doubted their commitment to children’s safety. Either the state law is ass-backwards and some companies are ignoring it to do the right thing, or this company just lied to me. Either way, it only made me more worried about school bus regulations.
I like to think of myself as a laid-back, never-overreacting kind of parent, but I’m kind of freaking out. While I can tell myself to calm down because most bus rides went off without a hitch last week, I think that my concerns are legitimate. After all, motor vehicle accidents are the second leading cause of death for children ages 5-14.
I already feel like I have so much to worry about as a parent; I don’t want to add one more thing to the list. Who has the time to research the policies, regulations, and standards of the state, school district, and bus company? Yet I feel that my trust in the system is shaken, and I don’t know how I am supposed to restore it. Maybe you can. Are bus horror stories truly the exception rather than the rule? What has your experience been? Has anyone researched this topic for themselves and have knowledge to share?