On a frosty winter day in York Region, Ont., the school bus was running late. Nine-year-old Teghan Ellis and her sisters, Cleary, 11, and Braedyn, seven, couldn’t resist the lure of a nearby snowbank. Teghan, engrossed in play, didn’t notice the bus pulling up. As her sisters boarded, she ran for it, but the driver simply closed the door and drove off. “My sister is still there! My sister is still there!” yelled the two other girls. He didn’t bother to respond. Teghan’s mom, Valerie Ellis, was incensed.
If she hadn’t been home, where would Teghan have gone? She concedes that there have to be some rules on the buses and that Teghan should have been waiting at the stop, but says, “a driver should not be allowed to pull away and leave a kid just because he’s in a pissy mood.” Jeff Fair, manager of student transportation services for York Region, agrees. There are rules for kids on the buses, he says, and rules for drivers too. “No one should be leaving a nine-year-old in a snowbank. Kids are kids. We don’t expect them to be lined up at the stop like little soldiers. And when they’re running for the bus, we don’t want our drivers to close the doors and leave them behind.” For the most part, Fair says, school- bus etiquette is all about getting kids to school safely and on time. When drivers consistently have to wait for children, it ensures that everyone will be late for school. “And that’s not fair.”
Although school boards across the country handle transportation services differently — some run their own buses, while others contract the job out — the same basic rules apply across the board. “Kids are expected to treat the bus as an extension of the classroom and show proper respect for other students, drivers and equipment,” says Grant Drever, conveyance manager for Prairie Spirit School Division in Saskatchewan. The basic rules on the 145 buses he operates?
Kids must remain seated and facing forward to prevent injury if the driver has to stop on a dime. Offences, such as vandalism, fighting, swearing, throwing objects, pushing or bullying, are treated on a three-strikes-you’re-out basis. “Anything the driver thinks is inappropriate gets a warning, then there’s a second warning. The third time, we bring in the principal and the principal does suspensions.” The buses of York Region share similar rules, although students can be suspended immediately for major offences, such as throwing a sharp object (a drumstick, in one case) on the bus. “If that had hit the driver in the head, it might have caused an accident,” explains Fair. Students are warned not to bring oversized items onto the bus — like hockey equipment or a tuba (parents have to drop off equipment, or kids can use instruments at school). The reason? They take up space and, if the driver brakes suddenly, they can turn into projectiles.
Rules apply getting on and off the bus too. Kids must remain well back from the curb while waiting for the bus and should board only after the vehicle has come to a complete stop. There’s no jostling allowed, mainly because a careless shove could launch a child under the wheels of a bus. And, says Fair, “we ask that students show up at the bus stop five minutes prior to their scheduled departure time.” When a student gets into hot water on the bus, the driver usually fills out an incident report, which goes to the principal of the school, and then to the parents. That said, there’s some leeway in how drivers enforce the rules. Teghan was once suspended for laughing, but both Drever and Fair think that’s a bit draconian, unless she was teasing or hit peak volume levels. “The biggest thing is safety,” says Prairie Spirit driver Len Peters. The bus’s drum shape makes it a great sound conductor, “so if someone is making a huge commotion in the back, it can be very distracting.” Designating Drivers
Potential drivers go through a driving history check (number of speeding tickets and accidents they’ve had) and a criminal check. Once selected, they can get anywhere from a few hours to a few days of training — including some tips on how to handle the kids — and they usually do a dry run with a safety officer on board. After many years on the job, Drever says that he has learned to suss out the duds quickly. “I take every [applicant] for a drive personally. Even if they have a good driver’s record, they may not be good with kids. That’s a big thing. I look for someone who is level-headed, calm and can see reason. Kids being kids, drivers have to be skilled at conflict resolution too.”
A good driver will often develop his own techniques for keeping things copacetic on the bus. “Bellowing shut up at the top of your voice doesn’t work,” says Peters. “If you’re not respecting the kids, they lose respect for you.” Instead, he gets to know each child’s name immediately. “It’s far more effective to say calmly, ‘Mathew, just tone it down a little bit, OK?’”
Peters adds that there are daily rewards associated with ferrying a pack of kids around — among them, the small jokes he shares with his charges and the little boy who has adopted him as a kind of “substitute father” since his own dad left the family. A few weeks after this veteran city bus driver took over a particularly “challenging” run, he was gratified to hear an older kid reprimand a younger one for acting up. “Don’t do that anymore,” he warned. “This is the best we’ve ever had it.”
But what if a driver isn’t treating your child so well and you want to complain? The consensus seems to be that the school should be the first point of contact. “In York Region, we transport 49,000 kids daily,” Fair points out. “It’s a lot easier for us to deal with 246 schools than [all] parents.” If you get no satisfaction from your child’s school, he advises, call the transportation division at your school board.
In York Region, there is an unwritten three-strikes-you’re-out approach for drivers. If there’s a run of complaints against a particular driver, a meeting is called. If the complaints persist, there’s a second meeting and then a third, after which a driver might be fired or assigned to another area. “Most drivers do a really good job driving the bus,” Fair explains, “but there are a few who really can’t deal with the students on the bus. Kids are kids and we don’t expect the bus to be completely silent, but some drivers think that it should be.” No doubt, these drivers could take a few pointers from Peters.
While there’s been much debate about the fact that there are no seat belts on school buses, you might be surprised to know that kids are far more likely to be injured when boarding or leaving the bus. Fewer than 0.02 percent of all road deaths involve an
occupant of a school bus, according to Transport Canada. Here’s why:
• The design of a school bus is subject to 40 federal regulations that cover its colour, mirrors, lighting system and seat design, among other things.
• To keep kids safe in case of a sudden stop or an accident, buses are built with compartmentalization — the rear of each seat is padded so that if a child is thrown forward, the seat absorbs the forward energy, distributing the force evenly over his upper body.
• Compartmentalization doesn’t protect preschoolers who weigh less than 18 kilograms (40 pounds), so as of this month, Transport Canada will require all new buses to include two to seven anchorage systems for child seats.