Gary Vang remembers the sucker punch to his jaw that felled him at a north Minneapolis bus shelter one evening three weeks ago. But the concussion he suffered from the attack has blotted out what witnesses said happened next, when his attackers kicked him and his head slammed back against the window of the shelter.
The junior is one of six Patrick Henry High School students assaulted while getting back and forth to school under a new program using Metro Transit buses instead of traditional school buses. The attacks ranged from gropings on a bus to a gunpoint robbery at a bus stop earlier this school year.
Concerned for the safety of the students, the school’s parent-community council this week asked for school buses to be restored at the school, or if not, that appropriate adults be stationed at bus stops to watch over students, according to member Mary Mooney.
Vang’s mother, Kia Thao, urged the school district to put student safety first.
“They might be willing to trade their money for children but not us,” she said this week.
The district has said the cost of the bus passes that students use for the program is about the same as the cost of the school buses. The program is aimed at improving attendance, in part because students can catch a later Metro Transit bus instead of missing the only school bus. The pass also allows students to stay late for after-school activities.
Five Minneapolis high schools made the switch to the bus-pass program this fall. Henry originally was scheduled to switch from yellow buses next year, with South and Southwest, but its schedule was accelerated, leaving less time for Henry to prepare for the change. The district offered a limited schedule of yellow buses during the fall in response to concerns from Hmong parents, but that ended late last year.
The school district said that high school students using the “Go-To” passes have reported 12 incidents to the district, Minneapolis police or transit authorities since the program began last fall.
In a statement Thursday, the district said it believes students are just as safe riding the Metro Transit buses as they are the regular school buses.
“Minneapolis Public Schools takes student and parent concerns regarding student safety seriously and we are working closely with the Minneapolis Police Department and Metro Transit police to ensure our students are safe while riding public transportation to and from school and various after-school activities,” the statement said.
A police report has yet to be filed for a pair of brothers who reported a bus stop assault in December and another again this week.
The district said that high-school students surveyed like the program and feel safe. But the program has been more problematic at Henry.
Thao loved Henry as a school and has done volunteer outreach to other Hmong parents there, but now she’s ready to open-enroll her sons in Hopkins schools as soon as there is room there. “I have to do what I can to protect my children,” she said.
Vang is an A honor roll student at Henry, has participated in math club and debate, and is advancing toward Eagle Scout. But his studies have suffered since the attack. He says he has headaches, has trouble focusing on work and is easily irritated. During his prescribed week away from school to rest before he visits a neurologist, he’s been told to stay off the TV, computer, video games and similar teen activities.
“I’m supposed to rest and sleep and relax, but who can do that?” said Vang, who plans to major in biology or chemistry in college. “Time is precious. I’m losing time.”
The day of the attack, Vang stayed after school to participate in a college-preparation program aimed at low-income students, along with his girlfriend. After school, they rode south on Penn Avenue to her stop and he walked her home several blocks away. He returned to the stop and waited for the next bus. When it didn’t come, he started walking toward home and was accosted by the two older youths. He told them he didn’t want trouble.
Casey Wolford, standing inside the bus shelter with his headphones on, heard a loud thud, which probably was Vang hitting the glass. Wolford saw the youths attack Vang on the ground before they ran off. “He was very groggy and out of it. He could barely stand. He was stumbling,” said Wolford, who called 911.
Vang said a Henry student he knew only by his first name was robbed at gunpoint at a bus stop earlier this school year. The robber took a phone and an English project, he said.
Brothers Chwe and Adam Yang were standing with a sister and a cousin on a December morning at a bus stop near their Hawthorne neighborhood home when a lone man crossed the street. Without provocation or conversation, they said, he hit Adam in the eye and Chwe in the nose, then took off. They got ice packs at school to quell swelling, Chwe said.
Mooney is one member of Henry’s parent-community council who is upset by the attacks, especially the one on Vang. “The whole thing makes me sick,” she said. “Somebody needs to admit responsibility for the safety of transportation of the students before and after school.”
School board Chairman Alberto Monserrate said that he has heard allegations of attacks but that he wants to be sure they’re related to use of the Go-To passes and couldn’t have happened at school bus stops.
Some parents are upset because they feel the bus safety problem has been swept under the rug. Community organizer Jay Clark is one of those helping Hmong parents get their concerns out.
“It certainly sounds to me like there is a problem with security and crime,” he said. “They have not solved it on the North Side yet.”