CECIL COUNTY — A group of Cecil County Public School bus drivers have come together, arguing that student behavior on buses has become a safety hazard.
“It’s getting to the point where it’s relatively dangerous for us to do our jobs,” bus driver Clay Freese said.
The group of bus drivers are asking the school to have clear rules, with clear expected consequences for breaking them, guiding student conduct on buses. Freese said drivers are concerned that rules are not followed consistently throughout County schools, and that reports of bad behavior by students are not followed up on in a timely manner.
“We are the people that get 85% of the students to school every day,” Freese said. “If you can’t help us do our job, then all is lost.”
Freese said students on his bus have gotten into multiple fights this year. Freese felt the suspensions they received were too small, three days, two days, and one day, for the infraction.
“I’ve heard this from parents, why did my child get hit,” Freese said. “Ma’am I have 47 kids on my bus who act like lunatics. I don’t know how your kid got hit, do you want me to watch the kids or watch the road.”
Freese said one student, while suspended from school for being in a fight, threw firecrackers at the bus entrance.
“Students are expected to adhere to school rules while at the bus stop, that’s written in the student handbook,” Freese said.
Freese said that even though he reported the student to the vice principal, no discipline occurred and when the original suspension was over, the student returned to the bus.
CCPS Transportation Director Charles “Chip” Helm said he was unaware of an incident that matched the one Freese discussed since his tenure began on Oct. 25. Helm said if an incident that serious occurred near a school bus, administration would have known about it.
“Our goal is to support anyone who works with Cecil County Schools,” Helm said.
Driver Kathy Romagano removed one student from her bus after the child threw a bottle of water at another student. A week after the incident, Romagano said she still hasn’t received a response to the paperwork she submitted about the behavior.
“The kid was back on my bus the next day,” Romagano said. “The only consequences he got was me getting mad and throwing him off the bus that day. That’s the only punishment he got that I know of.”
Freese, in front of a group of around 20 drivers, called for a driver to represent each contractor in the county to field bus driver concerns.
“Children and buses are a difficult thing to manage sometimes,” Cory Hall of Hall Bus Company said. “I think over the years administration has kind of gotten lax in dealing with drivers and dealing with the situation, so there was a growing issue.”
Hall said the county is making a major effort to address the issues bus drivers have.
A large bus driver shortage is gripping the nation, with some states such as Massachusetts resorting to using the National Guard to drive students to and from school. The shortage has also made an impact locally here in Cecil County, which the county attributed to competition with districts in Delaware and Pennsylvania and the difficulty of getting a CDL.
Freese argued that the two main contributors to the school bus driver shortage are student conduct on buses, and the difficulty of getting a CDL.
“If we can’t come together as a unit, to at least put our concerns on the table, before any steps are taken, we’re all in deep trouble,” Freese said. “And our students are in deep trouble.”
Helm said his goal is to increase communication between schools and bus drivers. He said bus drivers should expect a response within 48 school hours, after writing up a student for inappropriate behavior. Freese expressed optimism in Helm’s ability to improve the situation.
Helm said schools will now meet with bus drivers three times a year, instead of just once a year. Helm encouraged bus drivers to email him directly with concerns.
The Cecil County code of conduct currently gives principals and assistant principals the latitude to discipline within ranges of punishments after the code of conduct is broken, according to Helm.
“In no situation when it comes to kids do we say automatically ‘this kid is getting this no matter what,’” Helm said. “Because we always have to look into the circumstances that led to that behavior.”
Helm did agree that there needs to be minimum standards around disciplinary actions, but that each situation will be looked at on a case by case basis.
“If there’s a fight on a bus there should be a minimum standard. If there’s profanity directed to a driver, there should be a minimum standard,” Helm said. “Now, what that is, needs to be developed with them and with contractors and with leadership.”