Hundreds of thousands of kids get up every morning, wolf down a bowl of cereal and hop on a school bus.
But who’s driving them?
A school bus operator on Long Island could be 20-something or well past retirement age. A man. A woman. A moonlighter. A college student. An old hand with kids or a newbie.
The question of who's behind the wheel is a natural one to ask after a school bus driver and two aides were arrested a few weeks ago for allegedly mistreating a 9-year-old autistic boy who attends a BOCES program in West Islip.
Transportation experts and child advocates stress that abuse by school bus employees is rare, but there are advocates who are pushing for more training, better screening and tougher regulations.
Today, drivers and aides on Long Island operate under a patchwork of state and federal laws and policies imposed by school districts and bus companies, said David Christopher of the New York Association for Pupil Transportation, which represents school bus managers.
The state and federal regulations serve as minimum standards that the districts and bus companies build on, he said.
Long Island's 124 public school districts serve roughly 480,000 students — nearly 200,750 in Nassau and about 237,000 in Suffolk, according to the state education department. The number of students who go to private and parochial schools stand at 38,000.
How the districts handle transportation varies, a sampling of them shows. Many own buses, and the drivers and aides are district employees. Others augment their fleets by contracting with a private company. Still others rely solely on a private company.
Most private bus companies hold their drivers and aides to a high standard, said Corey Muirhead of the New York School Bus Contractors Association, which represents about 100 companies statewide including 14 on the Island.
"There is quite a rigorous process before we put a driver on these buses to drive these kids,” said Muirhead, the association's president. “You know there’s pre-employment drug testing, there’s fingerprinting, there's physicals and medical tests … So there’s a constant element of Big Brother to make sure these drivers and these matrons (aides) are extremely responsible, and they’re doing the right thing every day of the year for these children."
Melanie Donus of Commack sees school bus safety through the eyes of a mother.
Donus calls herself "blessed" that her 10-year-old autistic son, Max, has had caring drivers and aides. Still, she would like better screening of bus employees, including a mandatory personality test.
"They have my child; they have my precious cargo," Donus said. "We put our kids on the bus and we pray that they are treated properly, and that they are safe on the bus."
ISSUES BEYOND DRIVER SAFETY
Driving a school bus can be a challenge, requiring skills that go well beyond safely maneuvering a 40-foot vehicle, according to the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services.
There are noisy kids and kids with disabilities. There are bullies and hair-pullers. And every so often, a medical emergency — a skinned knee or a bloody nose, the industry group said.
Then. there are the limited hours of work — a couple in the morning, a few in the afternoon — and lots of training and testing, according to the association.
And all of that for about $20 an hour on Long Island, said Christopher, the New York group's executive director.
In New York, the kind of license that a driver needs depends on the weight and seating capacity of the bus.
For a standard bus, with a seating capacity of 72, a person needs a commercial driver's license, according to Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations.
A commercial driver's license holder who wants to drive a school bus also needs what federal regulations call "p" and "s" endorsements, for passengers generally and for students specifically.
The endorsements require additional testing on tasks specific to driving a school bus, such as stopping at all railroad crossings, loading and unloading students and using emergency exits, the regulations state.
For a smaller bus, one with a seating capacity of less than 16, a person needs the lowest-class commercial driver's license, or a CDL-C, according to the state Department of Motor Vehicles. The CDL-C holder, too, must have special designation, either N1 or N2, depending on the number of passengers, according to state law.
A driver must pass written and road tests to earn the N1 designation, which allows for fewer than 15 students; the N2 designation, for fewer than eight students, comes with passing a written test, Christopher said.
Many of the buses crisscrossing Long Island are smaller ones, he said.
"There's literally thousands of small van buses in Long Island and New York City area," he said.
FACING AN ARRAY OF TESTS
Getting a commercial driver's license is only the beginning for someone who wants to drive a school bus. There's a background check and an annual medical exam. There's the federal minimum age requirement of 21, though there's no age cap.
And there's a physical performance test that everyone has to take every two years. The test varies with the employer, but most include climbing the bus steps, operating hand controls, carrying a student in an emergency evacuation and guiding students to the emergency exits, according to state law.
Plus, again under state law, a driver has to submit letters from three unrelated parties attesting to his or her good character.
The state also requires bus drivers to report any traffic conviction or crash to their employer, which in turn must file a report on each driver every year to the motor vehicles department.
Anyone convicted of a felony is either suspended or barred from working as a driver or aide, depending on the crime, according to state law. For example, a conviction for aggravated sexual assault means a lifetime ban.
All bus drivers are subject to random drug and alcohol testing, according to state and federal laws. Last year, the U.S. Transportation Department expanded the list of drugs prohibited to include the opioids hydrocodone, oxycodone, hydromorphone and oxymorphone.
Under New York law, a bus driver who fails a random test is suspended from driving a bus for a year and anyone convicted of driving a school bus while intoxicated is permanently disqualified from driving a school bus.
"Most carriers have a zero tolerance," Christopher said of drug and alcohol use. "If you test positive, you need to go into another business."
Like drivers, aides have to pass a background check, a medical exam and a physical performance test every two years. The minimum age requirement is 19 but, again, there isn't an age cap.
Aides are sometimes called monitors and attendants, depending on what role they play. An attendant gives support to a child with special needs or disabilities; a monitor is brought on the bus to keep order and help the kids get on and off safely, Christopher said.
Something the state doesn't require is a personality test, though the National Association of Pupil Transportation is suggesting one, he said.
Donus, the mother from Commack, would like to see a personality test added to the requirements and all convicted felons banned from working for a bus company, regardless of whether as a driver or an aide.
“If they can’t follow the law, how are they going to follow the guidelines for children?” she said of convicted felons. “People make mistakes. They can turn their lives around, but not at my kid’s expense.”
SUFFOLK CASE IN THE PUBLIC EYE
The alleged tormenting of the autistic boy took place over seven days last fall and was documented by video from a surveillance camera on the bus, Suffolk District Attorney Timothy Sini said in early March when he announced that the three workers had been arrested.
The driver and the aides — ages 81, 68 and 56, respectively — have all pleaded not guilty to multiple counts of first-degree endangering the welfare of an incompetent or physically disabled person, a crime punishable by up to four years in prison.
All also were fired by East End Bus Lines, Sini said. The bus company didn't respond to several requests for comment.
The boy attended the BOCES program but lived in the Longwood Central School District, which hired the bus company, police said.
Eastern Suffolk BOCES had no authority over the bus company but exceeds state and federal regulations on several points, said Joe Lesnick, the transportation administrator for Eastern Suffolk BOCES.
BOCES, for example, doesn't employ any felon as either a driver or an aide, he said.
"Would you want to put your child on a bus with a person with a proclivity to commit a crime?" Lesnick asked.
The question goes directly to the issue of trust.
Parents tend to believe their children are free from danger during the school day, said Michelle Ballan, a professor at Stony Brook University's School of Social Welfare.
"Parents see busing as an extension of the school day," said Ballan, whose research focuses on individuals with disabilities. "I think there's a level of assumption that their children are safe, because they perceive the schools are safe."
Wayne Rock of Mineola has two sons with special needs. Both went through public schools.
Rock thinks both drivers and bus aides need more training in handling students with disabilities.
"They should get training from the special education teachers at the school," said Rock, who
advises parents on getting services for their special-needs children. "That way they can talk about the student's ... issues and behaviors."
THE VIEW FROM BEHIND THE WHEEL
Ada Fietkau, of Oyster Bay, has been on the road as a school bus driver for seven years now.
She works six hours a day for the Jericho School District, ferrying the same kids back and forth in a van.
Her morning starts with about 20 middle school students. Then, there's a run with a special-needs student. She does two more trips: one with about a dozen grade-school kids and the other with as many as 15 high-schoolers.
Midday, the 67-year-old Fietkau takes special education students out into the community, where they can work and learn life skills.
Most afternoons are a replay of the morning.
Rarely does anybody give Fietkau any trouble, which she attributes to her firm but friendly demeanor.
“You want to let them know you care and emphasize that they shouldn’t misbehave on my bus,” she said.
When a kid does get a little mouthy, she lays down the law.
“When they are disrespectful, I tell them: 'That’s enough. Do you know what you’re saying?'” she said.
Sometimes all Fietkau has to do is look at them in the rearview mirror.
Charmain Kanhai-Noronha drives a van, too — five hours a day for Suffolk Transportation Services, a private company.
Her passengers are four special-needs kids, who attend Timber Point Elementary School in East Islip.
“I love working with children,” said Kanhai-Noronha, 42 of Bay Shore. “It’s very rewarding seeing them come on the bus, happy, saying ‘Good morning Miss Charmain.’ “
Every year, she gets training on wheelchair safety “to make sure students don’t get hurt” and takes a class on different kinds of disabilities.
She has learned how important it is to develop a relationship with each child. For example, she makes a point of not towering over a kid when she's speaking. Instead, she crouches down.
Still, there are challenges.
“You don’t know when you get to their door whether it will be a happy, bubbly kid or one that’s sad and having a bad day,” she said.
When one girl is having a bad day, Kanhai-Noronha has found her own way to cheer her up. They sing during the ride. The girl loves the "Happy Birthday" song.
Some days, they sing "Happy Birthday" all the way home.
Requirements for a school bus driver:
- Minimum age of 21
- A commercial driver's license with extra designations, depending on the size and capacity of the vehicle
- An annual medical exam
- A physical performance test, which is repeated every two years.
- A drug and alcohol test, which is performed randomly after hiring
- Letters from three unrelated parties attesting to the driver's good character
- A background check.
Requirements for a school bus aide:
- Minimum age of 19
- A medical exam
- A physical performance test, which is repeated every two years
- A background check
Sources: Federal and state regulations