School bus drivers learn to keep students safe in face of threats

School bus drivers learn to deal with threats

Modesto City Schools bus drivers and monitors get a full day of training on emergency preparedness and violent behavior prevention. Deke Farrow/
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Modesto City Schools bus drivers and monitors get a full day of training on emergency preparedness and violent behavior prevention. Deke Farrow/

In a light moment during training on serious subjects Thursday, Modesto City Schools bus drivers found their jobs compared to that of airline pilots.

A trainer with APEX Safety Curriculum Fundamentals told a class of about 60 that while pilots are at the controls of very complicated pieces of equipment and get extensive training on every conceivable scenario, many would never dare get behind the wheel of a bus carrying 80 rambunctious children.

As the new academic year is about to start, that’s just what drivers in MCS and other districts will do every school-day morning and afternoon. They sought the training to feel more knowledgeable and confident on the job.

“Our drivers have been requesting student management, this type of professional training, for a few years as the world around us has changed,” said Becky Meredith, senior director of business services with Modesto City Schools. “Bus drivers are such an important piece of our student experience, our student success. The most important thing is getting the children to school safely to start their day.”

A news release sent out on behalf of Apex reads in part, “Bus drivers learn to take a gun away from a shooter. ... Bus drivers learn evasive driving techniques.”

Parents may be upset over various things that have nothing to do with school or the school bus. Parent-to-parent confrontations and student-to-student confrontations may occur at bus stops, and that can’t be allowed to carry onto the bus.

Becky Meredith, senior director of business services with Modesto City Schools

And while the changing world has included more violence and threats of violence at schools, the bigger part of what bus drivers were to take away from the full day of training was information they can apply to interactions every day. As Kate Molthen, the district’s dispatch supervisor, put it: practical, hands-on knowledge for real-world situations.

“When you’re pulling up to a bus stop, you’re planning to just pick up students,” she said, “but there’s a lot of times where we have parents waiting, sometimes parents are waiting to confront the driver, they feel their student has been issued a citation under false pretenses. ...

“In other instances, we’ll have parents who are neighbors who are having some kind of issue among themselves – fighting or arguing at a bus stop. We’re trying to pick up students, we’re trying to keep our students safe and our staff safe, so we’re hoping this training will help to empower our drivers to have some actions that they can take to be sure we’re keeping safety as our first priority.”

Maria Villa, a driver with the district for 11 years, said she and her peers sought the training because they had questions and concerns about keeping themselves and their students safe.

The instructors were teaching drivers to “recognize our students when they have problems with behavior, and signs of something that can happen,” she said, stepping out of class for a couple of minutes to talk. “People’s attitudes are changing towards life, towards the actions that they take, the frustrations – they take it out on anybody. The way students approach authority, authority doesn’t exist anymore.”

Society is inherently more violent than it used to be, so to provide the information to drivers about what could potentially happen, I think, is a positive, proactive response and stance.

Tom Carroll, APEX Safety Curriculum Fundamentals instructor

And, yes, drivers would be learning about how to react in a situation in which someone has a gun or could possibly take bus occupants hostage, she said. But the district isn’t trying to turn its transportation staff into a SWAT team or special forces unit.

“Observe and report.” That’s basically what the district expects of drivers who encounter trouble, Villa said. “Don’t act upon it. If you act upon it and feed into the situation, you’re just gonna make it worse. …

“We check in with dispatch and they determine the situation, or we determine the situation because we’re involved, we’re the driver. If we feel we can take care of it, we take care of it. But we let the dispatcher know what’s going on.”

Drivers could be heard going through “verbal judo” drills, such as loudly repeating the command, “Get off my bus!” The so-called broken-record technique can be effective in getting through to an aggressive person, making the person recognize his of her behavior is not acceptable. Depending on the circumstances, friendly demeanor, body language, tone of voice and eye contact all can be effective communication to bring a person back to a rational conversation, said Apex instructor Tom Carroll.

He said Thursday’s training was to give drivers and monitors tools they can use in ordinary situations when they deal with discipline and kids. He said the training includes information from the Department of Homeland Security’s Transportation Security Administration and addresses “situational awareness, paying attention to behaviors of people that could potentially escalate into violence.”

As for the worst-case scenario – someone bringing a gun aboard a bus – “We at least want to prepare the drivers for what that could potentially look like or how that might work,” Carroll said. “Not that it ever will, but there’s the potential for it.”

Deke Farrow: 209-578-2327