In recent years, much attention has been paid to preparing schools for that all-too-possible horrific moment, for example when a current or former student or unknown intruder starts shooting.
As vulnerable as students and teachers are in a classroom, preparing for such scenarios can be even more important for school bus drivers, who are typically the lone adult responsible for the safety of children in a confined, relatively unfortified space.
Katrina Morris, transportation director for West Shore Educational Service District in Ludington, Michigan, is lauded by many of her peers for working with colleagues and law enforcement to pioneer a training for bus drivers to prevent, avoid and deal with unexpected violence and threats.
An $810,000 grant from the state of Michigan means that by next fall, all school bus drivers and transportation directors in the state will have received the Proactive Response Training for School Bus Drivers, developed by the Mason County Sheriff’s office along with West Shore ESD. Law enforcement officers have also participated, with a focus on “training the trainer,” so they can share the knowledge with others.
In August, Morris and her team also trained bus drivers from Ohio districts via Zoom.
“In a classroom, you’re in brick and mortar, you have doors, you have other people around to help you,” said Morris, who is also a past-president of the Michigan Association for Pupil Transportation. “You don’t have those options on a school bus. You don’t have space, you have one adult a lot of times, that one adult has to make those split-second decisions.”
Darryl Hofstra, interim transportation director of Forest Hills Public Schools near Grand Rapids, Michigan, took the training last summer.
“It’s unlike any training any school bus driver has had anywhere in the country,” he said. “The worst thing we can do is be ill-prepared for things that happen that are unexpected. If we can build scenarios around potential risks, we better equip our people to be prepared for them, though we hope they never have to go into that part of the toolbox and take those tools out.”
A Michigan state law mandates all school bus drivers receive the proactive response training as part of a larger safety course. Meanwhile, Michigan state Rep. Jack O’Malley, is working with Morris and others to push out a package of school bus safety legislation that would impose penalties for entering a bus without authorization, running red lights, impeding a bus and related issues. It would also facilitate the use of video to punish offenders.
Mason County undersheriff Kim Cole said law enforcement has worked closely with school districts and with Morris to help everyone involved understand how they can prepare for, work together and support each other in a crisis involving an active shooter or other threat.
“The best thing you can hope for is somewhat controlled chaos, it’s going to be crazy,” Cole said. “You’re going to have law enforcement agencies responding.”
Meanwhile, the bus driver will have to make the initial decisions before law enforcement arrives. As they were developing the training modules, Cole noted, that deputies had to respond to incidents where a parent boarded a bus and “got into it with the driver,” and where a car tried to block a bus’s path.
“We really support the school districts and bus drivers in making the decisions they need to, to protect the children,” Cole added. “A lot of it is mentally preparing them to fight back. If someone comes on that bus with a weapon, do what you need to do to keep that person off the bus and stay safe.”
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The Indiana State Police also hosts a free program to train bus drivers and others to be prepared for threats on buses.
Sgt. Chris Kath, the state’s school bus safety coordinator, explained that the department is offering the safety training free to districts. The state police’s online safety training video has been viewed about 20,000 times in five years. Kath said he and staff have also heard from officials in New York state, North Carolina, Maryland, Iowa, and Missouri who are interested in the training.
“If you don’t train for something, you’re not going to do it very well in a stressful situation, you’re not going to react the way you think you would or would want to,” Kath said. “But if you train for it, it becomes second nature — that’s what law enforcement does. It might be as mundane as someone trespassing because they thought it was the metro bus instead of the school bus, to a parent who might be upset, to someone who wants to do harm to the driver or students.”
Dr. Richard Hogue, director of the Indiana State Police corporate and educational security, said that about 80 state troopers have been trained to educate drivers. About 80,000 people in total have received the training so far.
“School buses are really unique. Not many people make their active shooter programs applicable to what’s going on, on a bus,” said Hogue, a former school principal. “We looked at a bus, talked to bus drivers and figured out what works. We took it apart and remade it. We put prevention on the front end.”
That means emphasizing that a bus driver must “secure their perimeter,” such as not opening the door to an unauthorized person who approaches. Instead, they should converse with the person through a closed or slightly open window. Hogue said that the training emphasizes “non-linear” options, meaning the order of steps a driver should take can vary, from driving away to having students hide behind seats temporarily before they can escape the bus.
“We are in strange times, different times,” said Doug Francis, associate transportation director at Gaylord Community Schools in Michigan. “You really have to be on the ball. Just because you see someone every day doesn’t mean they are friendly. Something triggers someone, and you have a bad situation on your hands.”