JCPS hiring police, offering incentive pay to curb school bus fights

JCPS hiring police, offering incentive pay to curb school bus fights
Published: May. 20, 2015 at 4:59 PM EDT|Updated: Sep. 10, 2015 at 3:05 AM EDT
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The scene where a girl was injured when she fell off a JCPS bus in the aftermath of a fight....
The scene where a girl was injured when she fell off a JCPS bus in the aftermath of a fight. (Source: WAVE 3 News archives)
Michael Raisor, JCPS COO (Source: WAVE 3 News)
Michael Raisor, JCPS COO (Source: WAVE 3 News)
John Stovall, president of Teamsters Local 783 (Source: WAVE 3 News)
John Stovall, president of Teamsters Local 783 (Source: WAVE 3 News)

LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - The ride to school can be a rough one in Jefferson County if you are on the wrong bus at the wrong time.

Jefferson County Public Schools says school bus fights are a problem right now even though the overall number is going down. And the issue is forcing changes to how the district handles the safety and security of students and their bus drivers.

Statistics show incidents are sporadic. But they can have major consequences, both for the well-being of the children, and the perception of the school district.

When video of a wild school bus fight between two Valley High School students went viral last November it was a black eye for JCPS. Two months later, a high school girl suffered serious head injuries falling from a moving bus in the aftermath of a fight.

"Bus fights are a problem," said JCPS Chief Operating Officer Michael Raisor.

But Raisor and other school leaders are quick to add that scenes like those are rare.

"We transport over 70,000 kids on over 900 buses, and we have a couple hundred fights a year," Raisor said. "So as far as it being an epidemic across the district, no it's not."

In fact, records obtained by the WAVE 3 Troubleshooter show fights on JCPS school buses are down from 269 fights two years ago to 172 last year.

Those smaller numbers still have a big impact on the families involved.

On Monday, a bus filled with children from Trunnell Elementary had to pull over and call in police and EMS after a first-grade boy and a fifth-grade girl got in a fist fight on a bus ride home.

"And then I got in his face, and then he punched me in my nose," said the 11-year-old girl.

She was checked for a possible broken nose. Her mom was just as shaken.

"He's old enough and he should be held accountable," said the fifth-grader's mom, who asked that she and her daughter not be identified. "If he can throw the punches he can take the consequences."

John Stovall, president of Teamsters Local 783, the union that represents bus drivers, says a lack of consequences for some students involved in school bus fights is keeping the district from stopping more ugly episodes.

Stovall claims when some bus drivers report fights to the principal, who is the only one with the power to suspend a child from the bus, the incident is sometimes swept under the rug.

"Why write a referral when I turn it in, the principal doesn't acknowledge it or the principal gets mad and says you're written too many referrals, so I don't want you driving out of my school anymore," Stovall said. "So they'll call transportation and say I don't want Eric driving out of my school anymore."

JCPS Chief Academic Officer Dr. Dewey Hensley questioned whether Stovall's account was accurate.

"I think there's a lot more to that story than appears," Hensley said.

Hensley said each school's code of conduct is different, and it's up to the principal to weigh the severity of a school bus fight against the importance of keeping those sometimes troubled kids in school.

"For us to do that then we have to transport them there," Hensley said. "And often if we spend all of our time suspending and moving kids out who do anything on a school bus, then we deny access to the very kids we most want to help."

Instead JCPS is hiring police officers in unmarked cruisers to monitor the ride home for some of its most troubled routes, including many at alternative schools, which have seen a sharp increase in school bus fights this year, even as the district wide numbers continue to fall.

JCPS is also stepping up the use of video cameras on all school buses and working on a deal to offer incentive pay to experienced bus drivers to drive routes with a history of violence.

The goal: Hoping drivers can keep control so things don't spin out of control.

"If he or she has to take their eyes off the road, calling the radio, stopping the bus, they're putting everybody in danger," Stovall said.

Some JCPS leaders think the way alternative schools are set up right now contributes to the bus fight problem because those kids just aren't being taught the conflict resolution skills they need.

JCPS is dismantling its current alternative school system and replacing it with a totally new approach. That new approach will be up and running next year, and JCPS hopes one of the benefits will be less school bus fights.

Copyright 2015 WAVE 3 News. All rights reserved.