Burdened Buses


Sophia Roberts

A students boards a Dreyfoos school bus in the afternoon, while peers await their buses beneath a walkway cover. Like many other Dreyfoos students, Communications senior Kristina Robinette completely depends on school transportation. “If something happens, where [the bus is] totally late, there’s nothing I personally can do to make a difference for my life. There are so many times I’ve had to text my [boss] and say, ‘Hey, I don’t know if I’m going to make it on time.’ I have a corporate job. It’s not a family business, [so] I could get fired because of the bus system.”

By George Wu and Asher Moss

Every morning, communications senior Kristina Robinette wakes up at 5:45 to catch her bus—only to be dropped off at school nearly an hour before the first bell.

On many afternoons, she waits for the C109 overflow bus to arrive to school long after her friends have driven off. Her dependence on the bus fills everyday travels with perpetual uncertainty.

“I completely depend on bus transportation to get here. If something happens, where it’s totally late, there’s nothing I personally can do to make a difference for my life,” Robinette said. “There are so many times I’ve had to text my [boss] and say, ‘Hey, I don’t know if I’m going to make it on time.’ I have a corporate job. It’s not a family business, [so] I could get fired because of the bus system.”

None of the issues Robinette faces are new. While The School District of Palm Beach County has taken actions to address them through both policy and budgeting, many of these problems—from the district’s difficulty with recruiting and retaining bus drivers to the lack of functioning A/C units on buses—are tied to a common thread: lack of funding allocated toward the district’s buses.

Are Buses Reliable?

With students from all across Palm Beach County, Dreyfoos bus routes are typically longer than most. In a survey of 971 students conducted by The Muse, 26 percent of bus riders said their rides are over an hour long. As a result, parent and lawyer Lisa Lee is pressuring the school district to follow state guidelines regarding long bus rides.

“Under [state law], ‘no secondary student shall be on a bus for more than one hour during the morning or evening,’” Ms. Lee said. “Unreasonably long bus time, as is [my child’s], which is close to the two hour mark in both the morning and evening, has a significant impact on our student’s sleep and homework time.”

Despite Ms. Lee’s efforts, the Florida Department of Education disagrees with her interpretation of this guideline.

“These time limits are not always attainable,” FLDOE Press Secretary Audrey Walden said. “Therefore, the language ‘so far as practicable’ alleviates these time limits when such limits are not able to be put into practice successfully.”

Lengthy bus rides are not the only factor impacting students’ commute to and from school. In fact, 22 percent of students surveyed said their buses are often late.

“Sometimes it’s pouring rain, and you’re just standing there waiting,” Robinette said. “It’s really frustrating when all your friends are going home … I have places to be and homework to do.”

The unreliability of buses poses extreme issues for students: 20 percent of bus riders claim that their bus drivers have forgotten to pick them up and 14 percent say that their bus drivers have forgotten to drop them off. Missing stops becomes a more frequent issue when students have substitute drivers who are unfamiliar with the many stops on each route.

“They have to ask us for directions because they don’t know where they’re going,” communications freshman Julia Shmerling said. “We have about 20 stops, and they missed about 10.”

Some of these reliability issues also stem from the lack of bus drivers. At the beginning of the 2016 school year, a shortage of 50 drivers caused major delays and forced some drivers to take multiple routes, according to The Palm Beach Post. Still, many drivers love what they do despite the obstacles they face.

“Being a bus driver is a big responsibility because when the kids step in, right here, their safety is in my hands,”R57 bus driver Pierre Abraham said, pointing to the steps leading into the bus. “I love what I’m doing … I feel like I’m doing something good for my community. I’m helping the kids to get an education. This is what I can do, and I’m doing it with a good heart.”

How are the Conditions?

The dependability of buses is not all that students have called into question. Many also feel that their safety is compromised—no matter the length of their ride.

“The bus is just so compact,” theatre junior Vivien Haim said. “There’s always that problem where there are too many people [on the bus], so everyone’s sitting in the aisle. The bus driver [says], ‘You can’t sit in the aisle,’ but there’s nothing to do. Do you want people to stack on top of each other?”

Despite the 37 percent of students who claimed that passengers of their respective buses have to sit on the floor, SDPBC’s Student Transportation Conduct policy says, “Students shall not be permitted to sit in the aisles or in the bus stepwell, or in any way which shall block aisles or emergency exits.”

“If students aren’t all seated in the bus, it becomes a safety issue if the bus has an accident,” Assistant Principal Leo Barrett said. “Or if the driver has to hit the brakes to prevent an accident, kids could be thrown around.”

While the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration outlines that a typical 39-inch school bus seat can safely accommodate two high school students, 54 percent of bus riders claim that students sit three to a seat on buses, with 25 percent saying that this occurs often or all the time.

“It’s very uncomfortable for kids to sit three to a seat,” theatre sophomore Raunak Manchanda said. “You literally are almost falling off the seat.”

In addition to dealing with tight seating conditions, 52 percent of students surveyed reported feeling uncomfortable due to high temperatures caused by faulty A/C units.

“The bus is supposed to have air conditioning, so they have to do a work order [if it doesn’t],” Mr. Barrett said. “Usually, it requires them to take the bus out of out of service. And then, they get an older beat up bus that doesn’t have air conditioning … There are only so many mechanics for all the buses in the district, so it becomes a wait-and-see type of process.”

During the 2014–15 school year, hundreds of buses transported students to and from school without functioning A/C units, according to The Palm Beach Post. The following year, SDPBC purchased 60 new buses in an effort to combat the lack of A/C.

More recently, a raised property tax in Palm Beach County has increased the district’s budget for the fiscal year of 2020 to over $3.5 billion, a more than 11 percent rise from the previous year. SDPBC plans to spend nearly $14 million on hundreds of new school buses equipped with WiFi in 2020.

Despite this renewed focus on students, SDPBC has not yet released a specific plan to deal with the issues bus drivers continue to face.

An investigation by The Palm Beach Post found that many bus drivers spend their 3 ½-hour break between morning and afternoon routes in bus compounds’ aging break areas, which, as recently as 2016, lacked adequate restrooms or air conditioning. For this daily struggle, a bus driver’s wages don’t offer much of a respite—just $14.42 an hour, raised from $12.37 an hour in 2016.

“We’re underpaid for the type of vehicle we’re driving and the responsibility we have,” N43 bus driver James Zuccarelli said.

At a recent meeting with bus drivers, the school district discussed the prospect of further pay increases, but the specifics were withheld from those in attendance.

“At the last meeting they promised all the drivers … [that] they’re gonna give them something that’s going to make them happy,” Mr. Abraham said. “But, they didn’t say how much it’ll be.”

Is Safety a Priority?

Sophia Roberts
Bus drivers wait in the bus loop before the afternoon bell for students to arrive. R57 Bus Driver Pierre Abraham views being a bus driver as a great responsibility. “When the kids step in, right here, their safety is in my hands. I love what I’m doing … I feel like I’m doing something good for my community. I’m helping the kids to get an education. This is what I can do, and I’m doing it with a good heart.”

Because of strict state manufacturing regulations, school buses are widely regarded as one of the safest ways to get to school. But while 73 percent of survey respondents said their bus drivers have not driven recklessly, 22 percent reported their bus drivers do often make “dangerous sharp turns.”

“One time on the bus, I was riding [to school], and it was like riding a dragon,” theatre junior David Geisweller said. “It was crazy. The bumps were so insanely dangerous that I was flying off my seat all the time. One girl sprained her wrist on my bus from one of those bad jumps.”

Though bus crashes nationwide are rare, on Sept. 16, 2019 bus R55 was involved in an accident. Digital media freshman Alexis Webb was on the bus when the accident occurred.

“The car rushed over into the lane while the bus was still going, and the side of the car ended up getting hit by the rear view,” Webb said. “We were thrown forward a little bit. It was such a scary experience.”

An audit of 19 preventable Palm Beach County school bus crashes in the 2017–18 school year found that the district took an average of four months to discipline bus drivers involved. This delayed reaction leaves potentially unsafe drivers behind the wheel.

While the school district holds an obvious responsibility to keep students safe, many safety problems can also be mitigated with seat belts, which only 5 percent of surveyed students report using. Sixty-one percent said they don’t wear seat belts because the seat belts are “disgusting.”

“I really don’t want to touch three pieces of gum on a seat belt just so I can stay safe,” visual sophomore Margot Tricomi said. “It’s just that disturbing.”

Enforcement of the Florida law requiring students to wear seat belts is somewhere between relaxed and nonexistent. Seventy-four percent of students surveyed said their bus drivers never tell students to wear seat belts.

Only with student, driver, and district cooperation can buses be made safer.

The School District of Palm Beach County did not respond to a request to comment on these issues.

Surveying a Solution

With such a complex issue, students disagree on how to form a solution. Some students believe that they and their parents have little power to solve the issues on their buses on their own, and that higher officials should take responsibility in tackling the challenges students face.

“I don’t think we can really do anything,” Haim said. “I think the school district has to come together and actually decide [by] themselves because we’re students. [We don’t] really have a say and even … our parents, to a certain extent, don’t.”

Regardless, many believe change starts with students voicing their concerns over issues on their school buses.

“I think that surveys and stuff like that would be so helpful,” Robinette said. “[We need to] find out what kids are going through, because there could be kids that don’t even think about it. And then there could be kids were they’re sweating to death, or they’re overcrowded, or they’re overwhelmed, or they’re getting home so late [that] they can’t get to work on time.”

This story was originally published on The Muse on December 6, 2019.