by Danielle Marie Holland
As a single parent of a child in Seattle Public Schools, I am particularly sensitive to the hardships many families have faced returning to in-person learning. While many of the hidden pains and challenges stemming from the pandemic are leading the news, our broken busing system seems to be going completely unnoticed.
From what I can tell, very little has been done to modernize busing since I was a kid. I can hardly believe my eyes watching the same gas-guzzling school buses roll through our community, with complicated routes, poor communications, and regular cancellations. This, in a tech-dominated city where one can track a pizza delivery block by block.
This all adds undue stress that exponentially impacts the most marginalized families, as they scramble to fill in gaps and get everyone to and from school safely and on time. The school bus system in Seattle has been failing to equitably serve families on limited incomes, students of color, and children with disabilities for years, and has proven more fragile and problematic than we could have imagined amidst the pandemic.
This week I learned that First Student, the international corporate giant in charge of SPS busing has been charged with and has admitted to continuous, grave safety violations over the years, but has yet to be held accountable in any real way by State regulators or schools. In March, they privately settled with the State to avoid a public hearing on violations which included repeated failures to screen drivers for drugs and alcohol, clearing employees to drive before they’d even completed an application for employment or had their driving records reviewed or verified.
Even more amazing is that this is clearly a pattern for First Student across North America. In San Francisco, First Student was confirmed years back to have jeopardized schoolchildren’s lives by transporting them on buses with known safety defects like threadbare brakes and worn tires. Former First Student employees provided evidence that the company regularly used unsafe buses to transport San Francisco schoolchildren. An ex-First Student bus driver in Billings, Montana, pleaded guilty to driving children under the influence of methamphetamines.
Their virtual monopoly in this student transportation space has provided very little incentive to improve service, modernize the industry, or clearly protect our children.
With regulators this week revealing they would be charging First Student just under $200,000 in fines and penalties for acute safety violations, I’ve got to ask how valuable are our children’s lives? I’m left wondering why our local leaders aren’t holding them accountable? Fewer violations in San Francisco recently led to a settlement of over $11 million, and that district opted to select a new bus vendor the following year. Here in Washington State, when our kids’ lives are being knowingly compromised and put in danger by this company, it appears State regulators and our school leaders have opted for a slap on the wrist and continued trust with our children every morning and afternoon.
More than ever, parents need busing to work well. So many families are struggling to make ends meet, to hold down jobs in a rapidly changing economy, and constantly searching for childcare solutions with little to no help from our government along the way. The least we can expect is a safe, reliable, transparent, and trustworthy ride to and from school for our most precious cargo of all.
We have been quietly tolerating a broken busing system for years, commiserating between parents — but never standing up together to demand better for our kids. It turns out now, that despite Seattle Public School’s main private bus provider, First Student, being tangled in hundreds of child safety violations, fines, and a settlement with the State, they may be selected as early as this week to continue cashing our checks and driving our children around town.
There has to be a solution and as a parent, I am hoping our school district leaders at least do the right thing this time and not just close their eyes and continue with the status quo.
The status quo is unsustainable. It’s time for our leaders to step up and put real solutions in place. Our kids are worth it.
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