In early March of this year, the Ithaca City School District was faced with a driver shortage. Four of their usual drivers were sidelined for various violations of the district’s safety policy. This means four of the 77 daily routes are now forced to be doubled or run by standby drivers.
“For us, first and foremost, is the safety of our students,” said bus driver Mark Sammo in an Ithaca City School District Board of Education meeting.
The school district already takes many precautions to ensure the safety of their students.
Children are given assigned seating on their bus. “[Assigned seats] create a more stable and secure environment for children on the bus,” according to the ICSD transportation policy.
Also, all buses are equipped with seat belts, and though it is not mandatory in the state of New York that students use these seat belts, a district policy put in place in 2012 dictates that students must wear a seat belt while on the buses.
There is a tax incentive in New York State that rewards districts for requiring students to wear seat belts while riding a bus. A law passed in 1987 required all buses built for use in New York to have seat belts. This did not required districts to adopt laws dictating that students wear them, and according to a study done in 2010, only 35 of the states 690 school districts required their students to wear a seat belt while riding the bus.
However these safety precautions did not prevent the incidents that caused these drivers to be suspended.
In one account of an incident that left former Moravia school district teacher and current ICSD bus driver Barth Mapes suspended for six weeks, Mapes finished his route and arrived at the next school to pick-up more children. He exited the bus to use the restroom and returned to find a child sleeping on the bus. In his account on ithaca.com, Mapes called the bus garage to inform them that the child was still on the bus, and returned him to his father before the child woke up.
Mapes was not punished until six months later when he was suspended for six weeks without pay.
Dealing with the Shortages
In order to make up for the lack of bus drivers, the normal amount of standby drivers could not cover all the positions left empty. In their accounts on ithaca.com, both Mapes and Sammo stated that to fill in for the suspended drivers, personnel from other parts of the department, including mechanics and office staff, were brought in to drive buses. Neither driver was able to be reached for further comment.
District policy does not require drivers to be trained fully until the end of their first year of service with the district, but it does require all drivers to obtain a commercial license with special endorsements before children can be transported.
The largest issue brought up by these simultaneous suspensions is whether it is safer to suspend drivers for their mistakes and leave the department short staffed temporarily, or to let these infractions slide.
“[There are] lots of sensitive areas and confidential issues,” said transportation manager James Ellis in an email.
There hasn’t been any response as to whether or not these incidents and their reaction will cause any change in disciplinary policy.