The South Washington County schools have begun assigning seats on its fleet of 141 school buses.
The district’s decision to change its long-standing policy was based on a desire to increase safety and help allay students’ anxiety about riding the bus to school, said director of transportation Ron Meyer.
“I believe that the bus drive is an extension of the school day. So it’s important that our bus drivers have a positive influence on the kids that they’re transporting,” said Meyer, who got the idea from his previous employer, the Eden Prairie School District, where it has been well received.
More than three-quarters of the district’s 18,500 students take the bus, according to its website. The new policy took effect at the start of the school year.
Bobbie Joson, student safety manager of the district’s transportation department, said school districts across the country have focused more closely on student safety initiatives in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Newtown, Conn. The district decided to act after determining that it needed “to really improve our accountability for every student that we transport,” Joson said.
“Should there be any type of accident or emergency, we will have a better handle on who we are transporting,” Joson said. “Each one of our seating charts is laid out in the format of a bus, so that we know who’s sitting in what seat. Say that there was a crash of some sort; when the State Patrol comes to the bus, they want to know who’s on board.”
Serious accidents involving school buses are rare. Students who drive to school are 50 times more likely to be involved in fatal accidents than those who ride the bus, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Joson said bus drivers, who will be in charge of implementing the new policy, received additional training earlier this year at a “minimal cost” to the district.
Students will be given several weeks to choose their seatmates, with whom they will sit for the remainder of the year, she said. Younger students will be assigned seats closest to the front of the bus.
Drivers will keep a seating chart to make it easier to learn their students’ names and ensure they are in their seats. Students with behavioral issues could be reassigned to other seats as the year goes on. Joson said that drivers will be encouraged to use their discretion in dealing with such matters.
Previously, students largely had to fend for themselves while boarding the bus. The aisles were sometimes choked with children pushing past one another to ensure that they could claim a good seat.
District 833 is the second school system in Washington County to begin assigning seats on a districtwide basis. Forest Lake schools adopted a similar program in 2008, aimed at curbing bullying and improving bus safety.
Although the transportation department has received mostly positive feedback, some parents expressed concern about how the district would enforce the new rules.
“Sometimes you see assigned seating as punitive, or as a measure because of poor student choices, but we want to stress it’s for student safety,” Joson said. “This is really much, much larger than student behavior. It’s really about focusing on what’s best for kids.”