I remember the chaos of the New York City school bus when I was in elementary and junior high school. Vandalism was the norm, “pile on” (in which the named person was targeted for a pig pile of five to 10 smothering children) was the game of choice, and drivers—the lone adults—were trained to keep their backs literally turned away from unsafe student behavior so they could focus on the road.
My memory of my own behaviors in this environment, to say nothing of the grown-up problems of lost drivers, disappearing buses and lack of communication to families that have created Chancellor Richard Carranza’s “first crisis,” was one of the reasons we at Harlem Link Charter School dedicated ourselves to having a trusted attendant riding the school bus, each day, each ride, morning and afternoon.
There’s only one problem: bureaucratic barriers make it nearly impossible to get an attendant on the bus. As a public charter school, we have access to the New York City Office of Pupil Transportation’s (OPT) yellow bus system, but we have found that the system isn’t organized around the needs of students. I understand that it’s counter-culture to pay adults to ride the school bus. But even after 20 years as a teacher and principal in public schools, I am surprised every year by the shifting and arcane maze of requirements and regulations that, taken together, paint a very clear picture: it’s easier to allow the kids to be unsupervised, the drivers to be unsupported, and the families to be left out in the dark than to take a chance that a school somewhere will hire someone inappropriate to take on the attendant’s role.
The system isn’t designed to make sure students are safe. It’s designed to enable bureaucrats to, as they say, “cover your ass.”
We have spent countless hours, exchanged hundreds of emails, provided reams of documentation, all to get that precious certification for each of our bus attendants (who are school employees) vetted through our hiring process and the State Education Department’s background check. Even after being hired and fingerprinted, OPT bans our staff members from being certified until OPT conducts its own fingerprint background check. We have provided medical forms from employees’ doctors as part of this process, only to be told that they need to fill out OPT’s new proprietary medical form. We have sent staff members to hours of mandated training, only to be told, a few months later, that they can’t ride the bus because they need to take a two hour “refresher” course.
We have persisted, and used the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s idea of creative maladjustment to skirt the rules whenever we can (and when grateful drivers are willing to risk their own sanction, in the name of student safety, by looking the other way and allowing “unapproved” attendants to ride), knowing we are making the right choice for student needs.
Sometimes we have been able to get through the maze—after weeks of responding to bureaucratic requests—and get actual certifications. Because of our persistence, in the last week alone, our bus attendants have:
- Worked with our teachers to rearrange student seating strategically to help students who have behavior modification plans;
- Given parents a heads up that a bus was running late when it broke down and been an empathetic face for frustrated parents waiting in the rain when the replacement finally arrived;
- Supported a driver with a severely overcrowded route (a bus that we have for some reason been assigned to share with another school, serving over 60 students)
The chancellor has reportedly responded to the thousands of parent complaints about buses—some of those from our parents—by assigning Elizabeth Rose, a former deputy chancellor, to focus solely on transportation issues. This is potentially a wise move, because my experience with her tells me she is fair, open-minded and focused on parent feedback.
But the new transportation czar will need to do more than just have an open mind and a strategic view of things. I’m sure that if Ms. Rose heard about the pig piles and ripped Pleather seats of my youthful bus rides, she would take action. I’m not sure what she can do, however, about the “cover your ass” attitude that seems so pervasive. She will need to completely reorient a system that has been serving the needs of adults for decades and is simply not organized to meet the needs of students and families.