Districts already meet state’s new bus recommendations

LIMA — Area school district leaders wondered what extra requirements they might have to meet when the Ohio School Bus Safety Working Group issued its 17 recommendations last week.

As it turns out, many districts are already doing most of them.

“Our district has looked over the 17 recommendations and has identified multiple items that we already have in place,” Wapakoneta superintendent Aaron Rex said via email. “For example, we encourage and provide professional development, conduct yearly evaluations, our drivers are involved in our wellness program, there is an orientation for our parents and students, we audit our routes each year, and we have had, and will continue to have, critical incident exercises.”

Don Horstman, the superintendent at Ottawa-Glandorf schools, expressed his doubts about the recommendations making any real difference.

“If you look at the 17 items outlined in the panel’s recommendations, in my opinion, the vast majority of them will have little impact on school bus or student safety,” Horstman said via email. “Many of these things are already happening in many districts across Putnam County and the state.”

Training requirements

Nine of the 17 recommendations in the report focus on training for drivers. Leaders for most area districts said they already offer professional development opportunities for their drivers beyond the currently required four hours of bus-specific training.

It’s difficult to add more training when districts are already struggling to attract drivers, though.

“Obtaining and retaining drivers is a difficult task, and I can’t see making the process more uninviting by placing too much more burden on the drivers, especially experienced drivers,” Karl Lammers, the superintendent at Kalida schools, said via email. “In talking with our drivers, most feel confident in the training they receive to handle the operations of the bus.”

Horstman added, “Any recommendation that makes it more difficult for school districts to attract, train, license and retain bus drivers will negatively impact student safety.”

Hazards outside the bus

The bulk of area superintendents who responded to The Lima News acknowledged support for working with the Ohio General Assembly to strengthen the penalties for drivers violating traffic laws in school zones and around buses.

“The biggest problem Allen East faces daily is motorists not following traffic laws,” Mel Rentschler, the superintendent at Allen East, said via email. “It is acknowledged that it can be frustrating to follow a bus that is dropping off or picking up students with frequent stops. The most dangerous time for our students is when they are getting on and off the bus.

“Drivers cannot pass a stopped school bus when the red lights are activated and kids are entering and exiting. Over the years, this has been a huge problem and only increased with the introduction of cell phone use in vehicles.”

According to Ohio State Highway Patrol data in the state report, 75% of fatal crashes, 80% of serious-injury crashes and 68% of minor-injuries crashes involving school buses from 2018 to 2023 were caused by the other driver.

Horstman noted Ottawa-Glandorf had three incidents in the past five to six years of vehicles passing buses at a stop, coming between a bus and the students loading onto the bus.

“Increased penalties, and encouragement from the state to ask judges and prosecutors to impose strict penalties for these violations, would have an impact on bus passenger safety,” he said.

Better communication

The report suggested closer working relationships with local media and annual meetings with parents and community members too.

“Typically we post information regarding school bus traffic safety laws with illustrations as well,” Joel Mengerink, the superintendent at Elida schools, said via email. “Maybe working with local media is something we need to do more of to promote school bus safety and not passing buses when their ‘reds’ are on.”

Bath schools include training for parents as part of the kindergarten screenings, Keanna McNamara, the transportation supervisor for the district, said via email. The district also avoids high-traffic areas for bus stops.

“Our parents/guardians are provided a copy of the bus transportation rules and responsibilities annually,” she said. “The parents and students acknowledge receipt of the rules and responsibilities. We also do school bus orientation during our kindergarten screenings each year and do an annual bus safety training in the classroom for all students in grades K-3.”

The seat belt debate

Area districts were especially glad the report didn’t require seat belts on buses. Many area districts have older buses without seat belts, and there are some concerns that seat belts might have “unintended consequences” during an accident.

“While research shows that seat belts are slightly safer, there are other safety concerns with seat belts,” Brian Woods, the superintendent at Spencerville schools, said via email. None of his district’s buses have seat belts. “I am pleased that the committee listened to the opinions of bus drivers, in which 81% felt seat belts should not be required due to unintended consequences such as the potential for students to not be able to unbuckle in an emergency, students using seat belts as weapons, and longer route times due to making sure students are buckled in.”

According to the report, there is at least one large bus with seat belts in eight Allen County districts, three Auglaize County districts and two Putnam County districts.

District leaders generally wanted the decision to be left to local school districts. Some expressed an openness to adding seat belts in the future, so long as there were corresponding state grants to pay for it.

Others would only consider it if the funding were included or only if they were required on new bus purchases.

“As of now, Allen East is not interested in retrofitting seat belts on any of our school buses,” Rentschler said. “There are pluses to having seat belts, but there are a lot of negatives. Allen East was surprised and glad the workgroup did not recommend mandating seat belts.”

New safety equipment

The report expressed a variety of options that can be added to buses.

Beyond the suggested seat belts, the report also includes 11 other suggested safety features on buses, including external school bus cameras; fully illuminated stop arms at the front and rear; crossing arms; fully illuminated “school bus” signs; lane departure warning systems; collision avoidance systems; electronic stability control; all LED warning, headlight and brake lights; lighted crossover mirrors; ground wash lights and reflective chevron markings on the back of buses.

Rentschler expressed an openness to adding LED lights on the outside of the bus, along with the extended stop bars. He also noted his district purchased two new buses last year, paying $108,500 for one bus. He worried the cost of a bus could push above $130,000 with all the recommended safety features.

Spencerville schools will go beyond the recommendations and implement GPS systems on buses for the 2024-25 school year, Woods said. The system offers notifications for students and parents when a bus is approaching and could send alerts if a bus becomes delayed. It can also create computerized routing systems to create the safest routes and stops.

“These notifications will allow for students to remain indoors longer meaning less time waiting by the road in the elements,” Woods said. “Turn-by-turn directions for drivers, especially substitute drivers, will allow drivers to place more focus on the road as compared to trying to figure out where to go.”

Elida’s buses already have LED lights, illuminated stop arms and large reflective decals warning drivers to stop. Mengerink noted school buses remain an extremely safe method of transportation.

“Certainly a bus driver’s job is not an easy one — transporting a bus full of kids, correcting their misbehaviors on the bus and watching all other vehicles and traffic laws around them,” Mengerink said. “That being said, school buses are the safest means of travel to/from school.”

Reach David Trinko at 567-242-0467 or on Twitter @Lima_Trinko.