Taking A Hard Look At School Bus Safety

Mar 11, 2014

In New Orleans, hundreds of school buses criss-cross the city every day, picking up and dropping off kids at school. The city’s schools rely on a dozen fleets of private buses that travel along hundreds of routes.

Last month, 6-year-old Shaud Wilson was crossing a busy street to meet his school bus when he was hit and killed by a car.

In the days after Shaud’s death, the city council held a special meeting on school bus safety and a number of concerned parents and residents showed up to air grievances. Many of them said that the vast network of bus routes in the city — which has been expanded to accommodate school choice — is unregulated, unorganized and unsafe.

In New Orleans,  it’s not uncommon for buses to pick up kids before dawn, and bring them home after dark. But long travel times are only one note in a chorus of complaints about serious problems with the busing system. Last month, the issue was brought front and center after three children were hit by cars while trying to get to and from school.

Lori Dixon has a son in kindergarten at Akili Academy. She showed up at last month’s city council meeting to talk about some of the red flags that she notices along her son’s bus route.

“My safety concern is the location of some of the bus stops,” says Dixon. “My child’s bus stop is where there are three abandoned houses. So to me, that’s very unsafe to have these young children standing in front of these houses.”

Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell agrees that safety is a major concern. She says that the current system, where different buses serving different schools cross the same streets to get kids back and forth, isn’t coordinated. To fix the problem, she says the council could manage a city-wide bus safety plan.

“We create legislation that says, if you are operating a public school in the city of New Orleans, then you need a safety transit route that is submitted to the city council,” says Cantrell.

Hammond’s Transportation, the company that owned Shaud Wilson’s bus, is also thinking solutions.

“We’re having safety meetings more regularly, and we are also asking our drivers to start crossing on different sides of the intersections to make sure that they can pick up the kids on the side that they stay on,” says CEO Mark Hammond.

Hammond also wants the city to outfit his buses with traffic cameras. He says it’s a win-win: the city would get revenue from ticketing speeding drivers, and kids would be safer while crossing streets. Too often, he says, drivers don’t stop when his buses let kids out on busy streets.

About a dozen bus companies, including Hammond’s, vie for about $30 million in bussing contracts with the city’s schools. Some schools pay more than others. The Orleans Parish School Board paid about $1000 a student last year because a lot of its students travel farther to go to school.

Councilwoman Cantrell argues that those costs are too much.

“The amount that schools are spending on transportation, it’s too costly, and it’s not sustainable,” Cantrell says. “And it is putting a huge burden on the schools, particularly those that are independently run.”

But parents like Lori Dixon, whose son also rides a Hammond’s bus, aren’t much worried about cost.

“To me, that’s not the main concern,” says Dixon. “I feel like when it comes to the safety of the children, the cost shouldn’t matter.”

But until officials make more changes, Dixon will continue to worry.

Support for education reporting on WWNO comes from Baptist Community Ministries, Entergy, The Hechinger Report, and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.