McFeely: Blame for bus incident falls on driver, but not completely

MOORHEAD - A school bus driver entered full meltdown mode last week in Moorhead and left his passengers-children from Horizon Middle School-by the side of a road in the city's industrial park. Kids on the bus said the driver called them the "n" w...

MOORHEAD - A school bus driver entered full meltdown mode last week in Moorhead and left his passengers-children from Horizon Middle School-by the side of a road in the city's industrial park. Kids on the bus said the driver called them the "n" word and the "a" word as they exited the vehicle, and he flashed the middle finger at them as he sped away. The "f" word was also part of his repertoire, it has been reported.

None of the driver's actions are acceptable in any way. Abandoning his passengers was a foolish and dangerous trick regardless of the behavior of a couple of the schoolchildren. The Moorhead School District's investigation might show that a couple of kids were disrespectful and downright abusive in their treatment of the driver. That doesn't excuse his actions. He is the adult. He needed to respond like one.

The district, the driver and the subcontracted company that employs him owe each child on the bus and their families a personal apology. They failed to fulfill a basic obligation. Thankfully, the kids all made it home safely.

But the incident opens the door to ask other questions when it comes to transporting our kids to and from school, some of which might be uncomfortable.

For example: What responsibility do the misbehaving children and their families bear and what penalty, if any, should they pay?

If we assume a bus driver must be pushed ridiculously far to respond the way he did, we can assume whatever he endured before kicking the kids off the bus must've been ugly. Driving a school bus is fraught with a certain peril every day, but this had to be a special kind of frustrating.

So if the district's investigation finds a couple of kids responsible through their words or actions, they need to be held accountable, too. Despite the driver's unacceptable response, the kids who might have been abusing him were the cause of it. That counts for something. They were not innocent bystanders, like the rest of the passengers.

Superintendent Lynne Kovash perhaps hinted at this in comments she made to The Forum when we first reported the story:

"With our buses, we want our students to be safe, but they also have to behave," Kovash said. "Riding a bus is not a right, it's a privilege. When students, misbehave, they can be suspended from riding the bus. There are appropriate disciplines for when students are misbehaving."

Another fair question is how far the school district must go to ensure the well-being of its bus drivers and passengers. While last week's episode was extreme, a three-minute chat with almost any school bus driver will reveal that it can be a challenging job. Not in every case, of course, but in many.

The basic premise for a school bus is this: 60-some students of varying ages, maturity and backgrounds are jammed onto a vehicle with one adult supervisor, who has their back turned to the passengers and must concentrate on driving safety while trying to monitor everything to the rear.

It's a testament to the wonderful nature of most kids that more bad things don't happen on school buses. It also might be a testament to the courage of humanity that we find enough bus drivers to do the job.

But if a school district's job is to make sure everybody arrives safely at their destination, is it time to explore bus monitors?

It'd simply be somebody to ride along on the bus to keep an eye on things, to make sure everybody is behaving, to allow the driver to drive. A chaperone. Or an enforcer, depending on how you look at things. Many districts in the nation have them.

My sense is that most school administrators and parents would be in favor in principle-why would you oppose a safety measure?-but districts would have a tough time with the cost. Even at $10 an hour, the cost for larger districts with numerous buses and routes would be large. This is not an era in which extra dollars for education are floating around. There are more pressing issues.

Or you could look at it this way: Would more people be willing to drive school buses, specifically more people not prone to side-of-the-road meltdowns, if somebody had their back? Would it be a better atmosphere for everybody, drivers and students? Is the cost worth it?

Safety, particularly when viewed as an obligation, has a price. There might come a day when we're willing to pay it.