School is back in session, and parents all over the country are packing lunches, checking homework and wishing their kids a good day’s education. But how much do they think about the people driving their children to school?
According to the American School Bus Council, more than 25 million children rely on the iconic yellow school buses to get to their classes. Still, even parents who take an active role in the academic lives of their children rarely have an opportunity to get to know the person behind the wheel.
Pop-culture stereotypes may paint school bus drivers as being of questionable character, like Otto from “The Simpsons.” In reality, the drivers are subject to ongoing checks of their health and driving records, notes the ASBC. This says nothing of their devotion to the children who board their buses.
Crosby Independent School District bus driver Dave Cooke of Texas stands out as a recent example of the faithfulness found in these seldom-celebrated employees.
Knowing the names of each child, Cooke greets them as they board. From the moment he arrives at a stop to the moment he drops them off at school, he considers himself their guardian. On the afternoon of Sept. 1, Cooke’s dedication was put to the test, reports KHOU.
An erratic woman attempted to board the school bus when he pulled over to let some children off at their stop, according to media reports. Despite her threats to bite him, he barred her from entering using his own body as a shield. Finally, with the help of a parent waiting at the stop, Cooke forcibly removed her from the bus stairs, the station reports.
The district later told Chron that Cooke drove away without unloading any of the children. He returned only after the woman had been detained by police.
“I made the decision that nobody that doesn’t have permission is going to get above that top step no matter what it takes,” Cooke told KHOU. It is this kind of devotion that has so many parents entrust their children to the school transportation system without worry.
In many school districts across the nation, budget constraints have led to cutbacks in funding for schools, particularly for nonacademic programs like transportation services. “There is the belief that non-classroom dollars do not impact student learning when, in fact, many instructional and student support programs ensure that students will graduate from high school and succeed in college, career and life,” said Dr. Ken Baca, an Arizona superintendent, to AZ ED News in response to additional education cuts proposed by Gov. Doug Ducey.
A 2012 decision to cut bus services in Union County, Tenn., led to bumper-to-bumper traffic around campuses and a marked increase in absenteeism, from 5 percent to 18 percent, according to a report from WBIR-10. Building Resilient Regions, a UC Berkeley research group, also noted that similar cutbacks in transportation for San Francisco schools resulted in some parents having to escort children on public buses for as long as 40 minutes — a routine difficult to reconcile with work schedules. While a SFMTA program to offer free bus passes for children from low- and moderate-income homes is in place, parents and students are still concerned with issues of safety while riding the public transit system instead of the dedicated school bus.
Even students who live close enough to walk to their schools are concerned about safety. The Houston Chronicle highlights the experiences of Savannah Stevens of Texas, who lives 1.3 miles from school — just shy of the 1.5-mile limit to be eligible for school bus services for Spring Independent School District. While her mother drops her off in the morning, the fourth-grader must make her way home each day on foot accompanied by her older sister. Much of their 40-minute walk involves paths with no sidewalks and cars whizzing through intersections.
The Active Transportation Alliance of Illinois notes that state reimbursement programs for school district busing end up reducing incentives to explore potentially more fiscally sound alternatives. They tout as success stories districts that have effectively incorporated Safe Routes to School programs, some of which have included bike giveaways to students and Walking School Bus programs to encourage alternatives. Simultaneously, the cities have received grants or initiated programs to make routes to school safer for pedestrian transit.
Still, incidents like the one averted by Cooke remind parents of the kind of guardianship being lost as districts and states scramble to balance ever-shrinking budgets. As Cooke told KHOU, “Somebody asked me once are these just kids on your bus, no to me they’re more like a family to us.”