By John Rolfe / Red Hook, N.Y.
Schools are opening and the pandemic is hopefully in the rear view mirror. The district where I work as a school bus driver in New York’s Hudson Valley is back on a normal schedule and no longer requires masks or quarantine for students or staff.
However, the road ahead is paved with a cold reality. That was made clear at our annual orientation meeting on Sept. 1 when, for the first time, drivers and monitors were shown a video about how to handle an active shooter. More of that training is to come.
Gun violence, especially mass shootings at schools, is now a fact of American life and likely will be for the foreseeable future. Guns have been involved in the deaths of more than 30,000 people this year, including the 21 students and staff members at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Tex.
My school district has not been immune to violence. In September 2021, a 16-year old student was stabbed to death during a brawl after a high school football game. Online threats and rumors of attacks have been taken seriously during the past year or so, with lockdown drills, active shooter protocols and enhanced security now the norm here as they are just about everywhere in the U.S..
Buses are often forgotten or overlooked (even by us drivers) because a certain “it only happens at schools” mentality prevails, but our vehicles are essentially rolling classrooms with lots of targets seated close together. The disturbing bottom line is that there is precious little we can do to fully protect our passengers.
In the video we were shown, a gunman with an assault rifle shoots up a bus. The driver tells the kids to huddle on the floor between the seats. That idea reminded me of the "hide under your desk” order my classmates and I were given in grade school during the 1960s when the threat of a Russian nuclear attack loomed large. Bullets sprayed from an AR-15 will easily rip through the sides of a school bus and kill anyone they hit.
In another video, a kid on the bus pulls a pistol and starts shooting. All the driver can do is try to make the shooter off-balance and vulnerable by slamming on the brakes or swerving the bus. It’s clear there are going to be casualties.
Arming teachers is a current proposal favored by gun-rights advocates. But the huge hole I see in that idea is that the assailant will always have the benefit of surprise and the first shot or shots, especially with a weapon modified to perform like a machine gun. Kill the teacher first and those who are left will be sitting ducks. And even if the teacher can pull their weapon and return fire, a raging gun battle in a crowded classroom, especially if the teacher is not fully comfortable with firearms, is sure to end in tragedy.
The same is true on a school bus.
In the past year or so, school buses in Atlanta and Cleveland and Little Rock, Ark. have been shot at or hit by random gunfire in nonlethal incidents. A student was killed at a bus stop in Greenwood, Ind. All it will take is one nightmare scenario with a death and injury toll the size of Uvalde’s to put us school bus drivers back on America’s radar, this time in the gun violence debate.
When Covid-19 hit in 2020 and began disrupting schools, the nation woke up to how important, and scarce (see my January 10, 2022 story in The Insider) we are. As our ranks fell sick, and many drivers quit due to the health risk, low pay, and high levels of responsibility, liability and stress, districts across the land suffered delays in service and route cancellations, leaving parents upset and scrambling. Massachusetts resorted to using National Guard members to take up the slack.
Where I work, some of our driver shortage has been solved by increasing our hourly pay from $22 to $30 an hour. But we’re still shorthanded. Routes have been consolidated and parents are angry that their kids now have to walk to group bus stops rather than be picked up at their homes. But the old way we did it took more time and driving. Fuel costs being what they are, and still in need of drivers, we had to become more efficient.
Teachers have been leaving their profession for reasons that include the threat of being shot, low pay, and interference from parents and lawmakers who want to limit (often with unclear guidelines and punishment) what they can teach about subjects such as race and gender. I’m curious about what course the bus driver shortage will take in a country where violence, whether random or political, seems to grow endlessly.
As it is, school shootings now make up 20 percent of all firearms incidents. School bus drivers and the monitors who ride along and watch the kids haven’t been in the line of fire yet, but give it time.
John Rolfe is a former senior editor for Sports Illustrated for Kids, a longtime columnist for the Poughkeepsie Journal/USA Today Network, and author of The Goose in the Bathroom: Stirring Tales of Family Life. His school bus drivin’ blog “Hellions, Mayhem and Brake Failure” is parked on his website Celestialchuckle.com (https://celestialchuckle.com) with the meter running.