A parent got few answers from the district and Badger Bus after her daughter had a close call with a school bus.
When a school bus hits and injures a student, how do Madison’s school district and its private transportation contractor, Badger Bus, follow up?
That’s a big unanswered question for the parent of a fifth-grader who had a close call with a Badger-operated yellow school bus in late January on the near west side. The child, fortunately, got away with only a bruised knee. When her mom contacted Madison Metropolitan School District staff and Badger Bus about the incident, she didn’t get a whole lot in the way of answers, accountability, or confidence that students are getting safe bus service. A transportation coordinator at MMSD moved the bus stop to a safer point on the street. That’s been the only tangible result. (The mother of the student asked that neither be named in this article, due to privacy concerns.)
Instead of operating its own school bus fleet, MMSD farms out some of its bus service to a private contractor (currently Badger Bus) and some to Madison Metro Transit. It also works with local cab companies and special-ed transportation companies to fill in the gaps. Badger Bus’ current contract with MMSD expires at the end of this school year, and the district is considering its transportation options for the next year, including the option to renew with Badger Bus. MMSD’s board is expected to take up the matter at its February 27 meeting.
The mother of the student who got hit sees a clear connection between that incident and the fact that school-bus operators are spread thin—not to mention the fact that MMSD is contracting out so much of its transportation needs to a for-profit company in the first place. A bus driver shortage is hampering schools and transit agencies across the country, and schools are struggling to hire enough attendants to supervise students during their rides. As a result, drivers are having to take on more routes and often are asked to somehow watch over the kids on the bus while keeping their eyes on the road.
“Our neighborhood doesn’t really have sidewalks everywhere,” the mother of the fifth-grader explains. “The kids usually get on and off the bus in somebody’s yard. We had eight to 10 inches of snow on the ground which had been plowed. So the kids got off the bus and got off into like a large snowbank basically. And so they’re kind of traipsing around, trying to get around the school bus.”
After dropping off the fifth-grader at her stop, the driver had to double back on the route to drop off a student who had missed their stop. “When he did so he took a left turn he would never normally take,” the mom explains. “When he did, the butt end of the bus swung out and hit [my daughter] while she was navigating the berm there. So it just whacked her down, and luckily she was in snow so the snow caught her. She landed right on her knee, and it was in front of her friends, so she was injured and then also pretty embarrassed. She just basically got up and ran home.”
The mother immediately sent an email to the school’s interim principal, Abby Watson, reading in part:
The driver did not stop to check on her and was probably not aware that it happened, but it’s part of a pattern of the bus culture seeming rushed, disorganized, and packed with kids, and the driver struggling to manage driving with child supervision duties.
I’m very happy to say that [my daughter] was physically okay, but she came home upset and confused about how it happened, and it could have easily been a tragedy. I don’t know what solutions are available to us, but I felt it was important to assert the kids’ safety should be paramount above and beyond scheduling and staffing difficulties.
Please let me know next steps. I’m not angry, but very concerned. I would like to report this incident to the bus company with the hope that they can give resources to the drivers that will prevent any more close calls and that they do what’s necessary to ensure the children’s safety, period.
Watson, the mother says, “called me that night and was very responsive and sympathetic and told me who to talk to next.”
“I want to emphasize that the people at MMSD who I spoke to (principal, teacher, transportation coordinator) were responsive and compassionate,” she says. But, “the total lack of responsiveness from Badger Bus was shocking. I called them, they did not give a shit… the answers that I was getting were very cagey.”
She did finally hear back, five days after the incident, from a claims specialist at Badger Bus’ insurance company, National Interstate Insurance. (This was after Tone Madison left a phone message with Badger Bus seeking comment for this story.) Emails shared with Tone Madison suggest that Badger Bus did not immediately report the incident to its insurance company. She doesn’t plan to sue, but asked the insurance company not to close out its investigation of the incident yet.
“What I wanted to say to Badger Bus was, ‘Hey, dudes, your drivers need support,'” she says. “It’s untenable to ask a single person to cart around however many kids in a bus and [deal with] inclement weather without an attendant that’s helping them and especially with some of the contingencies that they’re having to deal with right now. When I found out that they had basically given them a job and a half with fewer resources than they would normally have—I mean, yeah, people are gonna get hurt.”
“It was like the perfect storm of things,” she adds. “I will say, the first half of the school year the other parents and I had been talking about how crazy the bus seems. It’s not like the driver is not doing his job. It’s just clear that he had too much to do and not enough resources.”
The conversations she was able to have with Badger Bus staff and MMSD officials ended up being fairly informal rather than part of a well-defined follow-up process.
Tone Madison reached out to transportation staff at MMSD and the district’s spokesperson, and sought comment from Badger Bus. Neither the district nor the bus company responded to multiple attempts at contact via phone and email. Inquiries to MMSD included specific questions about how the district follows up with a transportation contractor when an incident happens, what the process is for documenting these incidents, and how many other such incidents have happened in recent years.
If MMSD and Badger bus do have a process in place for handling school-bus accidents like this, it isn’t working for this parent.
“We’re right back where we started,” she says. “My daughter asked to go back on the bus, so she’s riding the bus again. I work full-time, so it would be difficult for me to replace the bus service in any meaningful way.”
While she’s relieved that her kid is OK, she doesn’t have a clear sense that Badger Bus is giving drivers what they need to provide safe transportation, or that MMSD is doing enough to hold its contractor to account.
“I don’t know what all this means,” she says. “The silence is weird. [Usually] if I raise hell, somebody’s standing in the back going, ‘Hey, lady, calm down.’ But the silence here is wild. And it makes me nervous.”