As the school year approaches, parents are worrying about a thousand details: new shoes, the right thickness of marker, the minutiae of afterschool child care. And more so than past generations, they're preoccupied by transportation issues. Is their child mature enough to bike to school? Is it safe? When is it appropriate for a child to walk? And, for parents far enough from school, the dreaded question: To bus or not to bus?
The fuss over the bus
The case of the school bus seems to be a sad example of "the more you know, the more you have to be nervous about" -- the qualifications and background of the person behind the wheel, lack of seat belts, and bullying from other students. What's the truth about school buses? Are they the dark, Lord of the Flies experience some parents imagine? John Stevenson doesn't think so.
His daughter Lea, a first-grader at Lapham, took the bus to school all of last year. Stevenson laughs and apologizes for being a dull interview when he professes, "It's been great. She totally loves the school bus." He attributes part of Lea's success to the fact that the only kids on the bus are second-graders or younger.
In Madison, the district contracts transportation duties out to five different bus companies. District spokesman Joe Quick says this is "generally true of large, urban school districts." Bus service is offered to students who live a minimum of one and a half miles from school, or in an area where walking is particularly hazardous. Bus service is limited to students in fifth grade and below, except in certain special situations.
Mick Howen, operations director of Badger Bus Lines, says that Badger screens its drivers carefully, looking at both driving records and criminal history and requiring a pre-employment drug test. Says Howen, "It's not the day anymore of a person walking in the door and our saying to them, 'Here, take the keys and go.'"
It's up to the school district to handle discipline on the bus. Some routes in Madison have an attendant in addition to a driver, but staff on the bus "only deal with issues that threaten immediate safety," says Howen. Otherwise, a disciplinary form is given to school staff, who then determine the appropriate course of action, including possible revocation of bus-riding privileges.
Even so, bullying does occur. Lorraine Holt's 14-year-old son chose to ride the bus throughout elementary school, despite a good deal of teasing and bullying. Holt and her husband offered to drive him, she says, "but he chose to stick it out," and they honored his request.
Maureen Rickman, a clinical psychologist in private practice at Mental Health Solutions, says this is just the right approach. When dealing with bullying on the bus or anywhere else, says Rickman, "overreaction on the parents' part can make children feel like they can't handle the situation." Rickman feels that as long as the situation doesn't get physical, parents should allow their chilren to deal with it on their own: "Teasing hurts feelings, and threatening hurts feelings, but punching hurts," she says, explaining where to draw the line.
Rickman doesn't advocate a completely hands-off approach, but does believe it is more helpful to talk a child through a situation like bus bullying than immediately involving authority figures or pulling the child off the bus. She believes many parents have forgotten some basic realities of kid existence. "Many adults lose perspective on the reality of a kid culture that we don't know," she says. "There's a whole realm of how kids interact with each other. Kids need to master that world, because it is their world."
Once children enter middle school in Madison, it's time for them to enter an even more exotic transportation realm: the city bus. Madison Metro runs special routes providing service to middle schools and high schools in the city and offers a special semester-long pass for students. (Last year, the cost was $95 a semester; the cost this year hasn't been set yet.) Julie Maryott-Walsch, marketing and customer service manager for Madison Metro, says that although she knows parents may be nervous at first when it comes to allowing a young middle-schooler to ride the city bus, "it's a very safe way for kids to travel."
As far as the poor bus driver responsible for transporting batches of sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders, Maryott-Walsch admits, "Those drivers probably are more challenged than any others," but adds, "once [the kids] get into high school, it's no longer cool to act up on the bus."
Parents who are nervous about new middle-schoolers who are starting to ride the bus should be sure to take the bus a few times in advance with their student. Topics to cover: where to get on, where to get off, how to make sure they don't miss their stop and what course of action to take if they do. Kids with attention problems will probably need more anticipatory drilling and practicing than their more attentive peers. Parents should also set clear boundaries (you can take the bus home, you cannot take it to State Street) and guidelines for what to do when something frightening happens, such as a youngster being harassed by an adult rider.
Driving, walking, being walked
Outside my son's school, a long line of cars dispenses students each morning. Many of these kids, like mine, are being driven to school because their parents work and frequently have to be behind a desk only a few minutes later than their child does. These kids often don't qualify for bus service because they live too close to school. Those are the kids who, once upon a time, would have walked to school on their own.
Fewer kids walk than used to -- 71% of parents today say they walked or biked to school as kids, while only around 15% of their own kids can make the same claim, according to a survey by the Surface Transportation Policy Project.
Jenna Hansen recalls walking to school alone as a small child, even in snow drifts that came up to her waist. But Hansen will be walking or driving her second-grader and her new kindergartener to school at Lowell this fall. Hansen expects to accompany her kids to school for a number of years, due to a combination of concerns, including cars turning off of a busy main thoroughfare and lack of a crossing guard at a certain strategic spot. The easiest route also has the most air pollution, which makes her eldest child ill.
Hansen says she'll rely on neighborhood parents with older kids to gauge when her girls can walk alone.
Another way neighbors can help each other is by forming walking groups of kids of similar ages or creating "a walking school bus" -- a designated adult walks the route each day, picking up students along the way.
Send me in, coach
Maureen Rickman recommends readying children for independent trips to school by using methods used in coaching: "When you're learning to do a back flip on the balance beam, they put you on the low beam and hold your back to support you." She recommends walking with children enough to be sure they know the route and basic rules, then gradually stepping back involvement while watching the child "to make sure they continue to be successful."
Rickman also encourages parents to talk with kids about anxiety that may come up before testing out a new skill, like walking to school: "Parents think if kids are stressed or nervous, they're not ready to do it. It's okay to talk about being nervous, or to be nervous. The real question is whether [the child] handled it well. It's better for your child to know that he or she can handle that much anxiety."
While parents should encourage their child to talk about anxiety, parents themselves shouldn't cop to feeling nervous about a child's ability to handle something.
Parents wishing to gain more practice should consider participating in Walk Our Children to School Week, Oct. 3-7. The event stresses the health and social benefits of walking to school, but also highlights safety risks and possible solutions.
And for parents who experience more nervous flutters than their child does, Rickman is encouraging. "That sense of 'I can manage these things' is one of the big excitements of childhood. If we had to teach our kids everything they need to know, they'd be idiots. That's why we give them experiences."
Madison Metropolitan School District Transportation Department
Info on what bus companies cover which routes, student eligibility, online survey regarding satisfaction with bus service.
Forming a walking school bus
Biking and walking to school
Ways to organize your community to increase pedestrian and bicyclist safety
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