JCPS bus drivers struggle to control fights, other dangerous behavior

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – When Adniana Harris first heard that disruptive student behavior in Jefferson County Public Schools was causing some teachers to resign, the longtime bus driver wasn't surprised.

Harris, a 23-year JCPS veteran, said she’s seen bullying, cursing, spitting, fights and assaults –– often while she's trying to monitor traffic signals and navigate around pedestrians and other cars while driving a 38-foot-long bus that weighs more than 20,000 pounds.

“The kids are out of control – the behavior is worse than it’s ever been,” she said. “It doesn’t surprise me one bit that teachers are resigning because many bus drivers are leaving, too. We’ve had so many quit over the past few months.”

Fights on buses have soared this school year, according to a WDRB News review of district data. At the same time, officials are struggling to fill dozens of jobs held by bus drivers who have resigned or retired – all while 130 drivers call in sick each day.

Since August, WDRB has spoken with hundreds of JCPS teachers, parents, students and other staff members who say they are frustrated with the disruptive behavior and what they consider to be a lax response from district officials.

Combined with the data obtained under Kentucky’s open records law, a picture emerges of increasingly disruptive bus system. There have been 306 student fights on buses since school began – averaging more than four per day – a 31 percent increase from the same period last year.

Meanwhile, the number of suspensions have remained essentially flat, as have the number of “referrals” for unacceptable student behavior.

“Harsher punishments – we need harsher punishments for these kids,” said David Germann, who has been a JCPS bus driver for five years. “I have been assaulted. I have been cursed at. I’ve had kids threaten me. One kid told me his father was going to come to the bus stop and gun me down.”

Michael Raisor, chief operations officer for JCPS, said the district transports 70,000 students to and from school daily. He says the vast majority of students behave while riding the bus.

“I don’t like it being portrayed that we have unsafe buses in Jefferson County,” Raisor said. “The safety of each and every one of our student is important to us, but everything has to be put into the proper context. We are talking about isolated incidents, isolated situations.”

“This is a problem we can get our hands around,” he said.

When a serious problem happens on a bus, Raisor says a team consisting of district security, administrators and police will respond to the incident.

In the past, bus drivers said police officers responding to disruptions on buses would sometimes remove children from the bus and transport them home or back to school. 

But last week, Louisville Metro Police Chief Steve Conrad sent JCPS Superintendent Donna Hargens a letter clarifying his department's responsibilities. 

“What we're going to do when we get there is make sure that we ensure order and make sure that everybody on that bus is safe and protected,” said LMPD Lt. Jamey Schwab.

“We want to make sure we ensure the safety of those children,” Schwab said. “But there are certain things that we are legally not able to do and it does fall back on the school system to provide some of those assurances and protections.”

‘It’s always the same kids’

Each year, JCPS bus drivers write thousands of student referrals for unacceptable bus behavior – ranging from relatively minor incidents such as repeatedly turning around in the seat to more serious incidents such as fighting.

There have been 2,763 bus referrals through the first 70 days of this school year, compared to 2,797 referrals written during the same time period as last year, according to data obtained by WDRB under Kentucky’s open records law.

The data shows there have been 1,069 bus suspensions so far this year – down from the 1,076 bus suspensions during the same time period last year.  Officials say the average suspension from riding the school bus lasts about three days.

And while the majority of students “straighten up and fly right” after receiving one or two referrals, Raisor said about a fourth of the 501 students who have received a referral this year are repeat offenders.

“We have 125 students who have five or more referrals,” he said. “We are going to name and claim them and develop a plan with the bus driver for those students.”

But parents like Loretta Self and Tatianna Pearson tell WDRB they are tired of hearing excuses.

“Since she has been riding the bus, there has been nothing but chaos,” said Self, whose daughter attends Westport Middle School. “She’s been smacked in the head, bullied and threatened. She is so stressed out that she wakes up in the middle of the night throwing up.”

Pearson’s daughter was on a Crosby Middle School bus on Monday when two fights broke out, resulting in one student being transported to the hospital.

“It's always the same kids,” Pearson said. “They will kick them off the bus for a day or two and then they get right back on there and do the same thing.”

Fights are a ‘daily occurrence’

More than a dozen bus drivers who were interviewed for this story told WDRB that student fights on the district’s buses are a “daily occurrence.”

Indeed, through the first 70 days of this school year, JCPS data shows that there have been 306 student fights on buses – a 31 percent increase from the 234 student fights on buses last year.

“They are yelling and screaming, fighting each other and I’m trying to drive down the road,” Germann said. “Trying to control a busload full of kids who are out of control and won’t listen to you – it’s just too much. It’s dangerous.”

The bus drivers say they have to pull off to the side of the road in an attempt to regain order and maintain the safety of all those on board.

“No one in the district wants to admit they have a problem,” said John Stovall, president of Teamsters Local 783, who represents all of the district’s 1,100 bus drivers. “They get them out of the school, put them on the bus and tell us to get them home. They don't want to acknowledge it.”

Stovall said drivers are “constantly getting threatened, kicked, head-butted, spit on and bottles thrown at them.”

“A lot of times, the kids are threatening the drivers with their parents,” he said. “And some of our drivers are women – they are pulling up to a bus stop when it’s dark.”

“You are by yourself on a bus, you don't have luxury of having a classroom or security guard and others to protect you,” Stovall said. “You are on an island by yourself.”

When asked what happens when the union goes to JCPS with concerns, Stovall said it’s “kind of like a card game.”

“This side blames this side, that side blames that get token responses that they will look into it but nothing changes,” he said. “Violent behavior on the bus needs to be stopped…but for whatever reason the district chooses not to deal with it.”

Stovall said many drivers are leaving the district over what he calls JCPS’ “lax disciplinary policy.”

Raisor says he regularly meets with Stovall and that the district is “addressing the issues.”

Ninety bus drivers have left since July, Stovall said. Of that number, 26 retired – the rest either resigned or were fired, according to district officials.

Another problem? District officials say about 130 bus drivers call in sick every day.

On Tuesday, JCPS held a transportation job fair, looking to hire drivers and bus monitors, hoping to find at least 20 drivers to fill the district's current vacancies.

‘You hope and pray that nothing else happens

Back in March, Germann was driving Bus No. 830 to Buechel Metro High School – a route he had just picked up days before after the district combined routes to combat a driver shortage.

“I noticed a white car approaching out of an alley,” he said. “Next thing I know, I see a gun being pulled out and they started shooting.”

Nine months later, Germann is still shaken as he recalls the moments the bullets ripped through the back of his bus where one of his students usually sat.

“Something didn’t feel right that day, I could tell when he got onto the bus so I told him to sit behind me,” Germann said. “The shooter knew exactly where he sat on the bus. If he had been sitting in his regular seat…I don’t even want to think about what could have happened.”

Harris said there have been many times she has had to pull off to the side of the road to deal with student behavior.

"Earlier this year, I had a kid getting into a fight and came up to the front where I was and he pushed me," she said. "My leg hit the side of the seat and got a little cut on it. They were fighting right beside me while I was driving."

Harris said she radioed for assistance and pulled over to the side of the interstate, where she waited for about 45 minutes until JCPS security arrived on scene.

"You basically sit there and hope and pray that nothing else happens," she said. "There is nothing else you can do. You can't put your hands on them."

On Nov. 13, the driver of Bus No. 415 was driving students home from St. Matthews Elementary School to the Park Hill neighborhood when suddenly, a fight broke out. The driver made an emergency stop on an interstate off-ramp and radioed his bus compound for help.

LMPD arrived within five minutes, but declined to remove the student at issue. It would be another 45 minutes before JCPS security arrived to remove the student and his sibling and take them home.

All remaining students were delivered home by 6:15 p.m., more than two hours from the time of the incident.

"Clearly that is unacceptable for a bus driver to wait 45 minutes for help to arrive," Raisor said. "We will evaluate those situations, investigate them and make recommendations on how we can improve."

But Stovall says a long response time "happens all the time."

"Some drivers are sitting out there for over an hour with a bus full of kids waiting on security to arrive," he said.

Bus monitors on all buses?

Disruptive student behavior on buses has been a problem the district has been trying to combat for years.

Three years ago, JCPS spent $2 million to install digital video cameras on each of the district’s school buses. At the time, officials said they hoped the cameras would cut down on the number of referrals and bad behavior.

Earlier this summer, experienced bus drivers were offered incentives to take one of 50 “challenging” routes that had been identified by the district based on a school's number of discipline referrals.

But only 13 drivers with the qualifications to pick up the incentive bid on the “challenging” routes.

The left over routes were assigned to less experienced drivers, some of which have bus monitors, district officials say.

JCPS school board member Chris Brady has asked the district to inquire about the cost of putting a bus monitor on each bus – or at least each of the “challenging” routes.

Officials have estimated that could cost as much as $3 million.

And while Stovall says an extra adult would be welcome on the bus, he says not much will change unless the district follows its disciplinary code of conduct and parents step up to the plate.

“We need the district, we need the parents, we need the community to help us solve this problem,” Stovall said. “Every child and bus driver in this district deserves to have a safe ride to and from school.”

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Reporter Antoinette Konz covers K-12 education for WDRB News. She can be reached at 502-585-0838 or @tkonz on Twitter.

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