A roomful of concerned parents gathered at Sidney Lanier Middle School Thursday, Oct. 6 to discuss ways to improve communication between schools, bus drivers and parents in the wake of an alarming incident Friday, Sept. 30.
On the way home from school that day, bus LI-6 was traveling from Lanier down Old Lee Highway when an eighth-grader at the school, who wanted to get off at a previous stop, stepped on the bus brake while the vehicle was still in motion. After the incident, the driver took the bus back to Lanier. The school gathered statements from the other students, while the student who had caused the incident was removed from the bus. The school called some parents to get their children, while other students were delivered home on the bus.
None of the students were badly injured, but according to several parents, many students were frightened and emotionally shaken.
"The school system was very lucky that no one was seriously hurt," said parent David Meyer. "When it did happen, the severity of the incident was just as significant as a student having a weapon on the bus."
"We have kids who get off on the first stop instead of at their regular stop because they’re scared of kids on the last one," said Robert Wells, whose daughter is a Lanier student.
Parents at Thursday’s meeting expressed concern over a lack of communication between them and the school in the hours and days following the incident. Some parents did not know their children had given statements, they said.
Meyer said the school should also have conducted medical assessments of the students on the bus.
"We didn’t do some things very well," said Lillian Lowery, assistant superintendent for Cluster VII schools. "It was an unexpected, unintended accident … it was completely out of our control." She said that it is Fairfax County Public Schools policy not to show parents their children’s statements, however, because they are taken in confidentiality.
Lanier principal Rodney Moore said the school could have done things better, but that at the time, the school wanted to get as much information as possible from the students.
THE MEETING was valuable not only because it allowed school administrators to plan better methods of communication, said Lowery, but because she and Moore learned things from parents they had not known before. According to many parents, Friday’s incident was not the only example of bad behavior on the bus.
"This is a major incident, but there are many other incidents," said Wells. "Abusive language toward the driver, throwing objects around the bus." Wells said his daughter, who used to ride that particular bus, was hit by a plastic soda bottle. She no longer takes the bus to school, he said.
Also, the meeting gave school administrators the opportunity to reevaluate communication between the FCPS transportation department and schools.
According to Dean Tistadt, assistant superintendent at the Department of Facilities and Transportation Services, bus drivers do not discipline students themselves, but refer reports of bad behavior with the school. The driver of that particular bus, he said, was new. Working hard to take care of any problems herself, she did not alert authorities to students’ behavior.
"This happened not because [the driver] was a bad person, but because she was trying to be a good bus driver," said Tistadt. Several communication fumbles occurred that day, he said.
Parents at the meeting also expressed concern over the driver. Tistadt said the department will review the driver’s performance, but that her actions were not grounds for termination.
"The driver is going to be told, ‘If you encounter any issues, you need to tell us immediately,’" said Linda Farbry, transportation director for Fairfax County Public Schools.
"Clearly, there are drivers who struggle with student behavioral issues and need additional mechanisms of support, whether training or something else, and this may very well be one of those cases," said Tistadt. "But this was not the result of the driver doing unsafe things, it was the result of students doing something unsafe."
PARENTS AND administrators at the meeting came up with several ways to improve communication between schools, parents and bus drivers, and ways to monitor student behavior on buses.
"The school has to meet with students at large, but it is probably a good idea to review bus protocol and the consequences of inappropriate behavior on the bus at large," said Lowery. "There is a more personal live conversation that we need to have with the students that ride that bus."
Meyer suggested having counselors work with students on the bus as well.
It would also be a good idea for school administrators to check with bus drivers once a week or so to make sure everything is all right on the route, she said.
Other schools have cameras on their buses where schools can monitor behavior, said Farbry, and this might be a possibility for the Lanier buses.
Parents suggested riding the buses occasionally themselves so that the bus can have an adult presence. Farbry agreed and reminded parents to call the Area II Transportation Office ahead of time if they wanted to ride the bus.
The fact that so many parents showed up to Thursday's meeting was a good sign, and showed how much parents care about their children, said Meyer.
"This is a wonderful system that makes sure we work collaboratively together," said Lowery.