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Technology Lessons Learned From Chowchilla

I had just turned 2 years old when the largest mass kidnapping in U.S. history took place in central California, about 300 miles north of my house. Some readers will remember July 14 and 15, 1976 for the lasting impact on school bus safety and security.

Less than two weeks earlier, the nation celebrated its Bicentennial. Exuberance quickly turned to terror, beginning in the small San Joaquin Valley town of Chowchilla north of Fresno and trickling out nationwide to every parent of a school-age child.

“There’s never been anything like it,” commented Valerie Coleman of ABC 7 News in San Francisco at the time.In one sense, the crime perpetrated by Frederick Woods and brothers James and Richard Schoenfeld remains unfathomable. The men were all sentenced to life in prison, only to have those convictions later reduced to life with the possibility of parole. Woods was the last to be released this summer, much to the chagrin of Gov. Gavin Newsom, who only has his father to blame. Judge William Newsom sat on that panel that agreed the men should have the opportunity for early release.

The school bus industry is no longer so naïve to think that such an incident is impossible today. We have become hardened by a seemingly endless string of mass shootings at schools, targeting elementary school children, for crying out loud. I shudder to think that some sick individual might read of what Woods and the Schoenfelds attempted basically a get richer scheme, as all three came from affluent Bay Area families and draw from it the incident some sort of evil inspiration.It took law enforcement 18 hours to locate the 27 kidnapped students and their school bus driver Ed Ray.

That is only because Ray and several of the older boys dug their way out of a moving van that had been outfitted as an underground bunker, while Woods and the Schoenfelds set out to demand $5 million in ransom, or over $25 million in today’s money. Before Ray and the children flagged down a worker at an adjacent quarry near Livermore, California, no one had a clue of their location, though the abandoned school bus was found hours earlier.

Technology, thankfully, has evolved to a point that some 300,000 school buses across north America are equipped with GPS, near-instant location of a hijacked bus has become a given for most school districts. Ostensibly if it happened today, the moment two of the Chowchilla kidnappers flagged down Ray’s bus to ultimately hijack it, school district and law enforcement officials could have been alerted of the impending crime.

But we are left with the stark realization that even today there are likely as many school buses without the location services as there are with them. In an era when we talk about school buses as rolling computers, it proves we have a long way to go to entirely removing risk for our nation’s student riders, with GPS providing but one of the tools to get there.

School bus hijackings, although rare and on a much smaller scale, still happen. Far more probable is that GPS could alert transportation staff of a mechanical issue with the bus before it breaks down and leaves stranded dozens of students. It could identify a problem bus stop before it becomes a deadly one. It could monitor bus driver behavior behind the wheel to alert management of safety issues. The list goes on.

Yes, GPS costs money, but new bus models are increasingly coming equipped at least optionally with it and the other latest safety and efficiency equipment. As Dr. Sheila Burton, assistant superintendent of operations for Dayton Public Schools in Ohio asserts this month in the magazine, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean School Bus Program affords school districts the opportunities to not only introduce zero and near zero emissions vehicles but also at the same time usher in the latest technology.

The conundrum is that school bus customers are dealing with historic delays in receiving new orders. It does little good to specify the latest technology and not be able to use it. Those that have invested wisely in technology are coming out ahead, but technology is also ever evolving.

Amid these modern pressures, the good news is that student transporters aren’t in the dark like they were in 1976. It’s a different world now than it was then, but with that realization comes the knowledge that school busing can always be made safer and more efficient, with the tools available to avoid incidents like Chowchilla from ever happening again.

Editor’s Note: As reprinted in the September 2022 issue of School Transportation News.

Related: School Transportation Triumphs in 2022
Related: Mastermind of Chowchilla School Bus Kidnapping Paroled from Prison
Related: California Students Research, Retrace 1976 Chowchilla School Bus Kidnapping
Related: (STN Podcast E126) Tech & How To Use It: Chowchilla Kidnapping Lessons & Driver Training Insights

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