Sex, drugs and violence. We found it looking through hundreds of school bus discipline reports for districts in the Baltimore metropolitan area. The ages of those committing this bad behavior may surprise you.
It is a leap of faith you take every morning, putting your children in another person's hands. You put them on the bus with a smile and a hug, trusting everything will be okay.
Vikki Williams, the Driver Safety Manager with Anne Arundel County Public Schools fully understands the responsibility.
"You put your children on the school bus and they become our children," Williams said.
Bus drivers become a surrogate parent for the small window of time they carry your kids. But they're so much more - part babysitter, part safety expert, and as ABC2 News Investigators found, part enforcer.
We've seen proof of what happens once the school bus doors close by going through hundreds of school bus discipline reports that get filled out by drivers when things go bad. After driving a school bus for decades, now retired driver Craig Joyner has seen it all.
DISCIPLINE REPORTS (SAMPLES)
"You would think they're all big kids, older kids, but a lot of this stuff stems up just from elementary kids. You're talking about between the ages of seven to 11, and they go off the hook," Joyner said.
The conduct reports we've seen detail bad behavior from kindergarteners all the way through high school. In Cecil County, the district had six suspensions from bus incidents last school year. Most of those suspensions were related to weapons brought on the bus and assaults, including an 8th-grade kid who threatened to kill a student with a letter opener he held to the boy's head. The report shows the student then stabbed the seat where the other child was sitting.
Howard County supplied us hundreds of pages of incidents, including some that ended with suspensions from the bus and from school. Those reports included an incident where an elementary school student hit another kid and threatened to shoot her with his dad's gun. That district's reports also included students who brought knives on the bus and full on fights between middle-schoolers that got so heated the bus driver had to pull over.
Joyner, who spent most of his career driving students in Baltimore city, says the reports are nothing surprising to him. He says, "We can't restrain them. We can't touch them, so what we can really do? They can really take the bus over. Nothing we can really do about it. You pull over, call the police. That's all we can do."
Records show some incidents have required a call to police in Anne Arundel County. Their discipline reports detail criminal charges filed against a 6th-grader who beat another kid so badly he ended up with a concussion. Four high-schoolers there were also arrested last year for marijuana possession after a driver smelled pot.
Vikki Williams says authorities do get called, but only in rare, worst-case scenarios.
"There have been times when police have escorted children right off the school bus, right into their police car," Williams said.
But she says that's what their drivers are trained to do. Williams handles the extensive training program for Anne Arundel County's school bus operators. It involves hours in a classroom and on the road. She explained how role-playing gives drivers the best way to cope with everything from sick kids to fights that escalate beyond horse play.
"It should never be a surprise," Williams said, "Because, if a driver or attendant is taking their responsibility seriously, they're going to feel that static in the air that something's about ready to go down."
When it comes to what happens on school buses, it was a matter of public record for most of the local districts we contacted. But some keep the discipline problems a secret or make it difficult to find out what happens.
For instance, Harford County originally wanted $13,000 for copies of reports other districts like Anne Arundel, Carroll and Cecil County supplied for free. The district, after repeated requests from ABC2 to narrow the request, eventually lowered its cost to $212 months later, although their response came too late to obtain the records for this report.
Baltimore County and Baltimore City both denied our requests for access to the discipline reports, calling them confidential student records protected by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. Their denial came despite the fact that other districts supplied the records, redacting personal information that would identify any specific students.
The discipline reports are an indicator districts are watching what happens on buses, but something else is watching too - cameras placed on some buses
The state's Department of Education says all 24 districts in Maryland have started installing cameras on buses operated by the districts themselves and their contractors. According to Leon Langley, MSDE's Director of Pupil Transportation, some districts like Carroll County already have them on every bus. Langley says other districts, like Baltimore City, have barely started adding them.
Concerned parents we spoke with consider the cameras an essential part of safe transportation. Many indicated they'd also like to see attendants placed on buses, something Langley says is uncommon in Maryland, except in the transportation of special needs students.
Anne Arundel County mom of three, Chris Barnes, says she'd feel more comfortable if buses had a camera and an attendant.
"I think that each bus driver should have an assistant on every bus. I can hardly handle my three kids sometimes let alone 20-30 kids on one bus."