By John Rosales
“Their intentions are harmless,” says Donna Nielsen, a school bus driver for 27 years. “But anyone entering a school bus can affect the safety of the students on board.”
That’s why it is against the law in most states for any unauthorized person to board a school bus. In many school districts, to do so can result in jail time and a hefty fine. Who knew?
“Not many people aside from law enforcement officers know about criminal trespass laws that mention school buses,” says Nielsen, who drives for the La Porte Community School Corporation in Indiana. “I believe that if a person knows they can get in trouble with police for stepping on a bus, they might give it a second thought.”
In addition to consulting with fellow members of the La Porte Education Support Professionals Association (LPESPA), state legislators, and other public officials, Nielsen began investigating criminal trespass laws in other states.
She read about the Charles “Chuck” Poland Jr. Act in Alabama. It is named after the bus driver who lost his life in January after a gunman boarded his bus and attempted to kidnap several children. Due to Poland’s actions, all students but one escaped. The abducted child was rescued unharmed six days later.
As a result of the law, buses have been equipped with an “unauthorized entry” decal mounted at the left side of the passenger entrance door. The new law makes it a Class A misdemeanor to deface or intentionally delay a school bus, enter without permission, or refuse to leave a bus after the driver in charge has made the request.
“After that incident (Poland), we really had to stop and examine how we operate on the road,” says Nielsen. “La Porte is a very friendly community, so we had to train drivers not to pull up to a stranded car, which might belong to a neighbor, and not open the door and ask if they need help. That’s the worst thing you can do.”
One morning several years ago, the guardian of a middle school student was scolding the student at one of Nielsen’s stops just as she pulled up with a bus load of students.
“She boarded the bus along with the student, shouted at me, and made some threats after I asked her to leave,” says Nielsen, who was able to talk her off the bus without incident. “The students were initially frightened, but knew the lady.”
Due to the verbal threats, police deemed it necessary to be present at the bus stop for several days during Nielsen’s pick-up and drop-off times.
“A warning sticker affixed outside the bus might have stopped her from stepping inside,” says Nielsen, “even as angry as she was.”
Drivers are encouraged to speak with others through the driver’s side window.
In Indiana, trespassing on a school carries a penalty of up to three years in prison and a $10,000 fine. Since a law is already on the books, it is the cost, size, color, wording and other details involving security stickers that must be approved by the state’s school bus safety committee.
To get the approval process moving, Nielsen teamed with LPESPA President Mickey Brady and the school district’s transportation director, Terry Busse. Together, they met with state legislators, law enforcement and other public officials who championed the cause with the appropriate legislative committees.
State Sen. Jim Arnold drafted a letter to the bus safety committee and secured a time slot for discussion and possible approval at its December 3 meeting. Arnold is a member of the state’s school safety interim committee.
“All our members rallied behind this issue because it affects student safety as well as the well-being of our drivers,” says Brady, a bus driver. “It’s a student-centered, Association-led effort that exemplifies the good that can result from collaboration between educators, legislators, and community leaders.”
The collaboration and meetings took on more relevance in October after a man with a knife hijacked a school bus in Arkansas. The man took 11 elementary school students and their driver on a 10-mile detour which ended only after police intervened.
“That school bus hijacking gave this issue some credence and gave committee members something to think about when they meet in December,” Nielsen says. “A sticker is not going to keep someone off a bus who wants to gain entry. However, the sticker is a deterrent that will alert the public about not boarding school buses and about penalties for doing so.”