No Laughing Matter

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School bus practical jokes have become a costly and sometimes dangerous problem for districts

Who hasn’t pulled a prank at some point in life? Whether it be a phoney phone call about Prince Albert being trapped in a can or throwing some eggs on a Halloween night 20 years ago, mischief and adolescence go hand in hand. Figures of authority — from principals to teachers to school bus drivers — have all had some type of practical joke played on them. But for the victims of some of these jokes, the resulting damage, whether it be to the vehicle or the individual, is not always something they can laugh off.

This past April, a Martin County School District bus driver was left with severe chemical burns after a student coated his seat with paint thinner. In one of the most severe cases of a prank gone horribly wrong, a bus driver lost his life. In June 2002, Robert Stanley, a driver in Edmonton, Alberta, was driving his charter bus when a boulder dropped from an overpass came through the windshield and struck him in the chest. He later died from internal injuries. The boys involved in the crime did not admit their involvement for three years and have said that they did not intend for anyone to get hurt.

To teach the students lesson in life, Katherine Nicholson, coordinator of training/safety officer for Spotyslvania County Schools’ Office of Transportation Services in Fredericksburg, Va., suggested they perform their community service with Emergency Medical Services to see the reality of an accident scene.

“They need first-hand insight of what pranks do and the outcome. Maybe if they had to fill his shoes, if they had to work and pay the wife of this bus driver his income, they might think twice about doing something like this,” said Nicholson.

Debbie Carter, a driver trainer from Lebanon R-III School District in Missouri, is not surprised that pranks like these have occurred.

“I am shocked at the severity and the tragic outcomes,” said Carter. “It seems like our society is one where there is no thought about what could possibly happen and how lives could be lost. I see a severe lack of remorse not only in the students, but, unfortunately, in the adults as well.”

The Many Degrees of Mischief
Not all pranks end in physical injury, though. Sometimes the school bus is the victim, as shown with the nationwide problem with students deflating tires, breaking windows or defacing the interior or exterior of the vehicles with knives, spray paint and crowbars.

“We have had the usual pranks,” said Edith Smith, executive secretary for McDuffie County School System in Thomson, Ga. “Sugar in the fuel tank. Nails in a board under the tires. Windows egged. I think one of the worst we have had here was when a student placed a poisonous snake on the bus. It was in a cardboard box. The driver found it during the pre-trip inspection.”

Sometimes students take an alternate, more creative approach after they receiving a warning. Kathy DeVries of works Southwest Education Support Center in Caruthers, Calif., remembers an incident when her students were throwing papers around the bus.

“I told the kids to clean the trash up, and, when I was done escorting some students across the street, the trash can should be full. When I came back in, the trash can was full. But as I was driving away, they had also put paper on the roof just outside the roof exits and it looked like confetti. This is not a dangerous prank, but it did make me realize how kids think outside the box,” recalled DeVries.

Sometimes bus riders only need their voices to initiate a gag.

“One day, the kids decided to sing as loud as they could. I did fine with it until I went through a green light, and as I crossed the intersection, there was an ambulance, lights and siren blaring, and I couldn’t hear them and didn’t see them until I was more than halfway through the intersection. That’s when I pulled the bus over and told the kids how unsafe they had made my bus. The kids learned a valuable lesson,” said Lonnie G. Whitten, director of transportation for Village Christian Schools in Sun Valley, Calif.

And other times the joke of choice has no easy fix.

“Someone placed Limburger cheese in numerous locations inside a contractor’s bus two or three years ago as a prank,” recalled Ed Krause of Batesville Community Schools in southeast Indiana. “After trying numerous products and strategies to remove the smell, it lingered in the vehicle for more than two years and was still detectable when it was finally sold.”

Many years ago in northern California, a parent was upset with a driver over an incident that had happened on the bus involving her child and threw paint in the driver’s face.

“It caused that driver to be out of work for quite some time and resulted in some kind of permanent eye damage,” said Acalanes Union High School District’s Kathy Garcia. “I do not think she ever returned.”

The Price of Practical Jokes
Repairing a single deflated tire doesn’t cost much compared to the manpower needed to re-inflate an entire fleet of buses. Then there is the out-of-service time for students and the parents who rely on the service. Who ultimately pays for the damage?

“We had a case where a student poured a significant amount of cooking oil over a driver on the last day of the regular school year,” said Harold Turnquist of St. Paul Public Schools in Minnesota. “The liquid caused a minor allergic skin reaction, ruined the drivers clothes, ruined the driver’s seat on the bus, got into and ruined the two-way radio, and went down a defroster vent, which caused serious problems. The total damage to the bus was several thousand dollars.”

The student transferred to junior high in the fall and had already registered at a charter school that the district did not provide transportation to. Although the student’s parents were billed for the damage, the district was never reimbursed.

“One can’t recover from a party that has no assets,” added Turnquist.

A loss of privileges is a common solution for many school districts. After a school bus driver was struck in the back of the head with a water bottle, the entire Whittell High School baseball team from Minden, Nev., was suspended from the bus for one week.

“It made the paper, and parents were upset they had to drive their own students to an away game,” said Dan O’Rork, transportation coordinator for Douglas County School District, located about 15 miles east of Lake Tahoe.

Reprinted from the July 2008 issue of School Transportation News magazine. All rights reserved.