LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – After numerous complaints by bus drivers and monitors who transport students to and from Waller-Williams Environmental School, Jefferson County Public Schools hopes that a mix of more adults on school buses and rewards for good behavior will be enough to address misbehavior on those routes.
Officials in the district's transportation department met with John Stovall, president of Teamsters Local 783, on Monday as they try to resolve several complaints of behavior issues on the bus from Waller-Williams students.
Stovall said JCPS officials watched video of what his drivers have had to endure on the Waller-Williams routes. He also shared letters from drivers and monitors, who claim students at the school have struck, spat on and thrown batteries at them during transport.
"I think they knew, but I don’t think they really realized how bad it was until they watched some of the video themselves and then they got an idea of what was going on," Stovall told WDRB News.
"I feel good that they acknowledged there is a problem and they seem sincere about wanting to work with us to get it resolved."
WDRB News reported Friday that bus referrals involving students at Waller-Williams, a school for youth with severe emotional or behavioral disabilities, are on pace to hit 911 for the school year, which would represent a recent high for the school.
Waller-Williams, which has 133 students, has the second highest number of bus referrals with 359 in the first 69 days of the 2019-20 school year, according to district data obtained by WDRB News through an open records request.
JCPS Communications Director Renee Murphy said the district is looking to implement changes on all of the district’s bus routes sooner rather than later. More adults on the Waller-Williams runs could help resolve some behaviors issues that drivers and monitors have dealt with, she said.
“We have been listening to the drivers, and we’re trying to get more feedback, and we’re working with the school to see what is in their best interest moving forward,” Murphy said.
"It’s so important to have our drivers and making sure that they feel supported and they know that as a district we are standing by them and we are working actively to make sure that they have everything they need to have safe bus routes," she added.
The district is also exploring ways to incentivize positive behavior by students, she said.
JCPS Transportation Director Donald Robinson, who started with the district Aug. 26, was not made available for an on-camera interview with WDRB News.
Drivers and monitors who have spoken to WDRB News say Waller-Williams students have not faced adequate discipline, such as suspensions from riding the bus.
Bus drivers and monitors detail their concerns in letters to the district, which were obtained by WDRB News.
In one, a worker on the Waller-Williams route says student misbehavior is putting drivers and monitors "at immense risk." In fact, this driver said they sought third-degree assault charges against a student only to find the student back on the bus the next day, "possibly putting my life in harm's way."
"Bus drivers are not trained adequately to deal with such extreme circumstances," the driver wrote.
Suspending special needs students can be difficult, particularly if they have transportation needs laid out in their individualized education programs, or IEPs, under state and federal law.
Students with transportation needs detailed in their IEPs could be suspended from riding the school bus, but that would also count as a suspension from school, according to the Kentucky Department of Education’s guidance on the issue. Multiple suspensions could lead to a change in placement for the student, the state’s guidance says.
Murphy said bus referrals are submitted to the school’s administration for possible action and that more than 30 Waller-Williams bus referrals have resulted in suspensions so far this school year.
“There are consequences to referrals,” she said.
For Stovall, drivers need support from leaders at Waller-Williams, which has had an interim principal for about a month.
Yolanda Floyd, the school’s former principal, left for a job in New Jersey on Nov. 15, according to JCPS spokeswoman Toni Konz-Tatman. Assistant Principal Jacquelyn Rahmel is serving as interim.
“I think we’ll get the buy-in from the school because the district’s involved now, and they realize what’s at stake because, to be honest, it would be a big lawsuit one day if something bad happens, God forbid,” Stovall said.
The district’s impending push for more adults on school buses comes at a time when it’s already looking for more drivers and monitors. Murphy said JCPS has about 50 openings for drivers and substitutes and 17 openings for monitors.
“We have all of our routes covered, and actually this is one of the lowest numbers that we have seen in quite a while,” Murphy said.
But Stovall contends that the district is actually short by about 75 drivers.
He supports JCPS hiring additional staff to help drivers concentrate on their routes rather than what students are doing during transport.
“We’re really lucky that we haven’t had a major accident because of some of the behaviors on these buses,” Stovall said. “God forbid it ever does happen, but it’s a possibility, a strong possibility with kids out of control.”
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