09/06/2013

School bus drivers in Texas win new disciplinary powers

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The Texas Legislature has enacted a new law bolstering the authority of school bus drivers to protect students' safety onboard their buses by enforcing discipline. The law, which took effect over the summer, authorizes drivers to send disruptive students to the principal's office. It also requires school administrators to respond with appropriate discipline.

Senate Bill 1541 was strongly supported by Texas AFT, especially members of the Houston Educational Support Personnel, whose members demonstrated for it at the state Capitol.

"We're going to make sure that every school in the state of Texas knows about this law and follows it," says HESP President Wretha Thomas. "We want all the bus drivers to stick with it."

Over the course of several years, student behavior had grown so out of control on some bus routes that, in one case, students jumped out the back door of a moving bus. But instead of holding students accountable for their behavior, school officials would punish drivers by calling them in, cutting their routes and causing them to lose drive time.

Houston PSRPs arrive in Austin to advocate for the school bus bill on Texas AFT Lobby Day.Houston PSRPs arrive in Austin to advocate for the school bus bill on Texas AFT Lobby Day. Photo courtesy of Texas AFT.

"That's when we knew we were in trouble and had to get some help," Thomas says. For more than a year, HESP members staged rallies, held news conferences and tried to bring the severity of the situation to the attention of Houston school officials, whose promises to curb threatening and even violent behavior on school buses had gone unfulfilled. (See related story.)

The new law will need to be implemented at the local level, first through changes in district policies and then through drivers' proper use of their new authority. To help its locals make sure the law is correctly implemented and enforced, Texas AFT issued policy guidance in August that lays out both the changes in state law and Texas AFT’s recommendations for local policy.

First, the law requires every school district in Texas to update its student code of conduct to specify circumstances under which a student may be removed from a school bus. Second, the law grants the school bus driver authority to remove a student by sending that student to the principal's office, and requires the principal to respond with appropriate measures as outlined in the code of conduct.

Texas AFT’s recommended local policy language would specify that drivers may send a student to the principal's office by documenting that the student has repeatedly interfered with the driver's ability to maintain order, such as by cursing, throwing things or refusing to stay seated while the bus is in motion; by determining that the behavior is so unruly or abusive that it seriously interferes with the driver's ability to maintain discipline, such as fighting, hitting the driver, running in the aisle or blocking the driver's view; or when a student’s behavior would make the student subject to removal if it happened in a classroom.

"I want to give a shout-out to all our bus drivers, aides and all the other support personnel here in Houston for the job they did," not only in getting the law passed but in performing their duties under pressure, Thomas says. "I'm proud of the bus drivers because they've been getting the kids home safely."

The new legislation is one of dozens of education laws that took effect in Texas over the summer. Among them are laws:

  • Partially restoring per-pupil funding for 2014-15 that was drastically cut during the recession.
  • Expanding access to free breakfast to all students at schools where 80 percent or more qualify for free or reduced-price meals.
  • Requiring principals and other administrators charged with enforcing the state's Safe Schools Act to undergo training, with emphasis on the distinction between ordinary disciplinary referrals and formal removals of disruptive students by teachers.
  • Expanding the eligibility of adjunct faculty at public institutions of higher education to buy into the state employees' retirement health plan.
  • Ending multiyear delays in commissioner decisions on grievance appeals by educators.

Texas AFT is pushing hard on several other fronts, including efforts to stop the diversion of state education money to highway funds, stop overtesting of students, and help shape the reauthorization of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act. [Annette Licitra]

September 6, 2013