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Stop throwing civility under the school bus

Columnist Jeff Ward writes thdriving school bus is 'lot like being shark tank etiquette instructor during feeding time.' | Sun-Times

Columnist Jeff Ward writes that driving a school bus is "a lot like being a shark tank etiquette instructor during feeding time." | Sun-Times Media File photo

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Updated: December 13, 2012 10:21AM

Whenever my favorite retired teacher and I get into a school bus discussion, she invariably exclaims, “Jeff, school buses are a combat zone.”

My automatic response is always a self-assured, “Mmmm hmmm.”

I’m not saying that the number of incidents is greater than when I rode the yellow tube, but I am saying the severity of those “events” has risen to a truly terrifying level.

To wit, last week, Barrington School District 220 Superintendent Tom Leonard alerted parents to an incident of criminal sexual abuse that allegedly took place on a middle school bus in early October.

The allegations, reported by the bus driver and an uninvolved student, led to charges being filed against two male students, ages 13 and 14. The bus was on Ela Road, north of Lake-Cook Road, at the time.

According to D220 spokesperson Jeff Arnett, “The driver noticed what seemed to be questionable activity in the back of the bus, but couldn’t be certain what it was.” When administrators turned the surveillance tape over to the police, they pressed charges.

That’s right. The cameras utterly failed in their primary role as deterrent.

Leonard explained the delay in reporting it was due to the “delicacy” of the situation, the parties involved were minors, and the need for an uncompromised due process. Both boys eventually were suspended for an undisclosed period, and the criminal case is pending.

But before we continue, please note that I’m not singling out one school district here. I believe D220 administrators handled this one correctly; and if you’re silly enough to Google “sex abuse school bus,” then I’d advise you to have a defibrillator close at hand.

Most of them involve middle schoolers.

That said, I did ask Arnett why, when the driver observed the “questionable activity,” he didn’t just pull over.

“The bus driver followed all the procedures and protocols,” Arnett said. “His first priority is to navigate the roadways safely. It’s very difficult for a driver to determine what’s going on in the back of the bus, and the students were very discreet. It didn’t raise enough of an alarm for the driver to stop.”

At least the driver reported it. We all know piloting a school bus is a lot like being a shark tank etiquette instructor during feeding time.

Then I asked Arnett, considering the proliferation of similar cases, and the fact that no one fears cameras anymore, was it time to pull out all the stops and install a Terminator-style monitor on each and every bus?

“When something like this happens, our natural inclination is to take greater measures to protect students and student safety is paramount,” Arnett answered. “But almost no bus route within our 72-square-mile district has experienced this issue, and putting a monitor on every bus would be cost-prohibitive.”

“If there is a persistent problem, we will assign a monitor,” Arnett continued. “But if we told parents and taxpayers the cost of employing full-time monitors on every route, they’d never go for it.”

And we all know that’s not a foolproof solution either. Remember the national news story about the monitor herself being the target of student abuse? And sometimes it’s the monitor who does the abusing.

“What occurred on that bus was clearly abuse,” Arnett said. “The consequences were immediate, and that’s what we try to communicate to parents. There is a level of behavior we will not tolerate.”

But then he made an interesting point. “The effect of the loss of civility in our society seems to have trickled down to the school bus.”

Who’d a thought we’d ever long for the days of garden variety bus bullying? But since cameras and monitors obviously aren’t the answer, then perhaps parents are.

So first and foremost, I’ll ask parents to teach their sons to respect young women and their daughters to have self-respect. Stop expecting the schools to do your job, forget about trying to be your children’s best friend, and actually try some parenting for once.

But most of all, try to remember that the general incivility that suddenly comes so naturally to us tends to rub off on our kids.

And if I can’t appeal to your better angels, then how about this? This is serious stuff. Sealed juvenile records are about as foolproof as bus monitors, and every D220 middle schooler knows exactly who was involved, and they’ll be talking about it well into their senior year.

All three of these children’s lives are irrevocably changed — and it ain’t for the better.

But if we start doing better, then perhaps our children will, too. A school bus should never be a combat zone.

You can reach Jeff Ward at

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