Dangers of the School Bus
Summer’s post over at Mom is Teaching (a few months back), regarding sexual assault in schools, reminded me of a topic that I’ve been meaning to write about for awhile: the real risks parents take when they send their kids to school on the school bus. As a homeschooling family, this is yet another risk that we thankfully don’t have to worry about. But I am still dealing with the psychological ramifications of my own experiences on the school bus, and I see my nephews being confronted with danger at every turn. So I thought I would tell my story. It helps to write about it.
All this thinking about the school bus began when friends of ours, who happen to work as teachers in public schools, told us that they wanted to make sure that they allowed their children to ride the bus to school. Since one of these parents works in the school that their children attend, they could easily drive their children to school themselves. But they think the experience of riding the school bus is important and good for their children. I’ve heard other parents echo those same beliefs, even dangling the whole “exciting” idea of riding the school bus like a carrot in front of new kindergarten kids. I think they are crazy. Here’s why…
Starting when I was 5 years old, in kindergarten, my horrible school bus experiences began. It all started just a few weeks into the beginning of school. On our bus rides home, some of the older kids (3rd or 4th grade?) began pressuring a little kindergarten girl and boy to kiss each other. I was just a bystander in this situation, but it made me intensely uncomfortable. Going to school and riding a bus was intimidating enough, but being forced to watch this harassment was terrible. The little girl’s feelings were obvious – she did not want to participate. But the pressure from the older kids was intense. This was probably the first time I was exposed to a situation were I was aware of some kind of sexuality going on. And of course I was alone, without my parent’s guidance. The bus driver, by the way, seemed totally oblivious to it all. It went on for weeks. I never told my parents about it. I was too embarrassed.
Fast forward about 4 years. This Mean Girl rode the bus with me. I’m not sure why she seemed to dislike me so much. Looking back, I think she had a variety of emotional problems that I didn’t fully understand at the time. Lots of other kids would make fun of her, although I never did. I was very shy, quiet, nice. Maybe that made me a good victim? But regardless of the cause, she disliked me. I don’t think I ever expected it to get past the “dislike” phase. But out of the blue one day, she slid into my seat on the bus. I was against the window and she was seated on the aisle. We had a lot of privacy because the bus had very high seat-backs. I doubt the driver could have seen more than the top of our heads. I was wearing long earings, which Mean Girl complimented. I was surprised – maybe she liked me, after all! How naive I was. Before I even knew what has happening, she had yanked my long hair downward toward the floor, so my head was practically between my knees. In her other hand, she had a firm hold on one of my earings. She told me that if I moved, she would yank my earing out. I was scared. My head hurt from the hair pulling and I was afraid that she would rip my earlobe if I resisted. She had me trapped in the seat, and no one could see what was happening to me. I can’t remember exactly how long this went on, or what she said to me during this time. What I remember is being powerless. Eventually my stop came, and she let me go without hurting me physically. My head was sore, but I was OK. But I still remember how powerless I was in those moments.
Fast forward another year. It was 5th grade and I had just entered the Middle School in my district, which covered 5th to 8th grades. I was still very young. Puberty had not hit me yet. The 8th graders that I went to school with were huge compared to me. I rode on a pretty crowded bus. Since there were rarely many seats, I often had to sit near the back of the bus, where a bunch of rowdy 8th grade boys would sit. One day, on the way home from school, I was sitting near the back of the bus when one of the tallest of the 8th grade boys slid into the seat next to me. This boy was very big and looked more like a high school kid. As he slid into the seat, I saw that a bunch of his friends were getting into seats all around me. I was confused at first when I glanced up at the guy, but I was also worried. I felt trapped. He started sliding in closer and closer to me in this weird sexual way with a funny look on his face. His friends were all watching and quietly chuckling. Then he started taking his shirt off. At this point I was panicking. I had no idea how far this might go, but I was both embarrassed and repulsed. I sort of hunched down and got as close to the window as possible. The boy had his shirt completely off and was rubbing his chest against me as much as he was able to. I think he said some sexual things to me, but I’ve blocked that out. Nothing else happened. He finally put on his shirt and got up and all his friends laughed and eventually walked back to their seats. I was humiliated and scared. I wouldn’t say I was assaulted, and yet this experience colored my entire year. For one thing, I was petrified of sitting anywhere near the back of the bus for the entire year. I was also unable to walk through the “8th grade hallway” at school for the entire year. This was pretty hard for me since that hallway connected many of the places I needed to walk to in school. When I was walking with friends that year and we got to that hallway, I’d make little excuses about why I needed to take another route. I think all my friends thought I was crazy, but I was too embarrassed to tell them why. I’ve thought about this experience many times since then, and I can still feel that boy rubbing against me and feel the panic inside.
Recently my sister told me about some things that have been happening to my nephews on the school bus. It seems that last year they had an abusive bus driver. The bus driver would get so angry at the kids that he would stop the bus and walk back and tell the kids he would hit them if they didn’t behave. Then he’d say things like, “Shut the fuck up!” to them. And he told several of them later that if they told on him that he’d, “fucking kill them”. The next day he would bring all the kids donuts. Then the cycle would repeat. He never actually hit any of them, but he did verbally terrorize them. None of the kids ever told on him. NONE. For months this went on. I can’t remember now how my sister ended up finding out about it. But she did. When she complained to the district, they interviewed the kids and eventually had the driver on that route replaced. But was the driver actually fired? NO! It seems the district has no power to have him fired because they get their drivers from a bus company. No one at the district seemed to care that the driver might very well be working at another school district tomorrow. This all took place last school year. This school year, my nephews went out to the school bus just like they always do for the first day of school in September. Guess who the driver was. The same guy!!
And just to be sure I’ve painted a full picture, the school district that all these things happened in wasn’t some “bad district” or anything (whatever that means). This district is known as a great school district. Not too large, in a pretty affluent area, excellent test scores, excellent graduation rate, excellent rate going on to colleges, excellent rates going on to Ivy League schools. The reason I mention this is that I sometimes think that parents in this lovely suburbia where I live like to delude themselves. They like to think that these kind of things don’t happen in their “good district”. After all, this is why they’ve paid an extra 100K for their house, right? These kinds of things happen on school buses everywhere, I am sure. And it’s not going to be taken care of by doing better background checks on bus drivers, or by putting larger mirrors or video imaging in the hands of the driver.
Look, I don’t plan to ever send my kids to school if I can help it, and my main reasons generally have nothing to do with the school bus. But when I hear parents harping about how exciting it is that their kids get to ride a school bus, I cringe. There is nothing particularly safe and exciting about letting your 5-year old child get on a bus with a bunch of strangers and have basically no supervision. It can be dangerous.