A short cellphone video shows parents standing around a yellow Stamford Public Schools bus that is stopped on the side of a road, doors closed, students and driver inside.
“Let us out!” one student shouts to the driver. Then another: “Let us out!”
But the driver keeps the doors shut.
The video made its way to members of the Stamford Board of Education, who discussed it during a meeting this week. School administrator Ryan Fealey summarized the incident for board members.
The driver pulled Bus 138 to the side of Newfield Avenue about 3:15 p.m. on Friday, April 21, as he was delivering students home from Scofield Magnet Middle School, Fealey said. The driver stopped because students were “acting in a manner inconsistent with school district policy,” Fealey told the board.
“The bus driver repeatedly tried to quell the behavior, but he was unsuccessful and the behavior escalated,” Fealey said. “When the driver determined that safe operation of the bus was not possible under those circumstances, he pulled over” and called the dispatcher at the bus company, First Student.
“After several attempts to calm student behavior … First Student directed the driver to park the bus in a safe location and wait for the arrival of police,” Fealey told the board.
A summary of the incident written by Capt. Chris Baker for his Stamford Police Department supervisors provides details about the behavior on Bus 138.
“During the ride, several students began causing a commotion that included screaming, swearing, standing up while the bus was moving, and throwing water,” Baker wrote. “The bus driver requested that the children sit down in their seats many times. He then warned that he would return to the school. The bus driver ultimately stopped the bus on Newfield Avenue in order to contact his dispatch. Several of the children confronted the bus driver … and began yelling at him.”
Jumping off the bus
As that happened, other students “disengaged the rear emergency exit of the bus and jumped out and onto the street,” Baker wrote.
The First Student dispatcher contacted the police department, which sent two officers, Baker wrote. When officers arrived, they found parents called by their children who were still on the bus.
Baker determined that the driver was following bus company procedures. He “was not permitted to let children off the bus for accountability (and) safety reasons,” Baker wrote.
Responding police officers released the students whose parents were at the scene and called for another bus to drive the rest of the students to their stops, Baker wrote.
First Student shared video from Bus 138 cameras, Baker wrote. “The children were in fact extremely rowdy, rude, and at several points got into the driver’s area and yelled, screamed, and cursed at the bus driver,” the captain wrote.
The incident was fraught with risk.
Student behavior was so out of control that operating the school bus became dangerous; having a bus full of students parked to the side of busy Newfield Avenue was dangerous; students jumping out of the emergency door onto the road was dangerous.
Students stuck inside the bus became alarmed, as did their parents, and, possibly, the bus dispatcher who concluded that police were needed to resolve the situation.
But, when the Board of Education met on April 25, four days after the incident, school officials appeared to hear about it for the first time from parents who spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting.
Board didn’t know
Heather Donohoe, mother of a Scofield Magnet Middle School student, said she was addressing the board on behalf of a number of parents concerned about safety on Bus 138. There was a previous incident, Donohoe told the board.
“The first incident was Feb. 16,” Donohoe said. “The bus driver left the kids on the side of the road far from their stops … I went to pick up my son … he was dropped off on the street, crying, upset. Then on April 21, the bus is pulled over on the side of the road again.”
Children “should not be dropped at a stop that is not their own, without knowing how to get home,” Donohoe said. “To be left for a second time on a road, and not brought home or back to the school, creates serious anxiety for children.”
Board of Education members appeared taken aback by what parents told them.
The president, Jackie Heftman, asked Superintendent Tamu Lucero to let the board know how the incident will be handled. Board member Versha Munshi-South wanted to know whether buses have monitors. Not typically, Lucero said. When member Fritz Chery pressed for answers to other questions, Lucero said, “We’ll get back to you with the right information … I’m getting texts as we speak.”
They put the incident on the agenda for this week’s meeting.
‘I don’t like surprises’
School district spokeswoman Kathleen Steinberg confirmed Wednesday that board members learned about the Friday, April 21 incident on Tuesday, April 25.
Scofield Principal Scott Clayton reviewed the incident on Monday, April 24 and notified parents last week, Steinberg said.
Depending on a student’s involvement in an incident, discipline may include assigning a bus monitor to a route for a time; giving students assigned seats; suspension from the bus; suspension from school; expulsion; or referral to law enforcement, Steinberg said.
Most of the questions from school board members at this week’s meeting concerned notification of parents and the board when a bus incident goes so far as to require a police response.
“I don’t like surprises. This was embarrassing,” board member Becky Hamman said. “Parents heard about it in a blurb in a newsletter. It didn’t look good. And this isn’t the first time we’ve heard about bus issues. I would be livid if my child were on a bus where that behavior was allowed to continue.”
Munshi-South, who has a child at Scofield Magnet Middle, said Bus 138 has “an ongoing issue” and parents should know about it.
“So many things could have happened … maybe our typical disciplines aren’t working here,” Munshi-South said. “These things can be scariest for kids who were not involved. We put students on a moving vehicle with someone who is not watching them. It’s not a great situation for safety, but that’s the system we have.”
If police have to be called, “that’s a whole different level,” Chery said.
“Parents are coming to a board meeting and talking about something and we don’t know anything about it,” he said. “We need to create a procedure for notifying people.”
630 bus runs a day
As it is, bus drivers file written reports for reasons that include everything from name calling and throwing notebooks to police matters, Steinberg said. When the driver speaks to a student and the behavior improves, no further action is taken, she said.
When the behavior merits consequences, such as suspension, expulsion or referral to police, the school principal notifies parents and the school board may be notified, Steinberg said. First Student shares reports with district officials, she said.
So far this year, 88,000 bus routes have been driven and 180 bus driver reports have been filed, she said. It’s an average of about 20 reports a month.
There are 315 bus runs each morning and again each afternoon for grades K-12, Steinberg said. Bus monitors can be assigned as needed, but the district does not budget for the position. A school staff member or First Student employee handles the job, Steinberg said.
About 75 percent of the student population – roughly 12,000 students – are eligible for bus transportation, she said. The number of bus riders varies each day, depending on absences and other factors.
Jen Biddinger, communications manager for First Student, said the company “take(s) our responsibility to provide a safe environment for students on our school buses very seriously.”
Students involved in the April 21 incident “were released after receiving appropriate authorization,” Biddinger said. “Our driver followed proper protocol. The incident is being addressed in partnership with the district to prevent this type of situation from happening again.”