WASHINGTON - Every time Monroe Elementary students misbehave on a school bus, they get a written warning - and a verbal one from the head of their school.
The message to the kids: Bus safety is so vital that even the principal gets involved.
"If I can work with my students to let them know I expect them to behave - and I'm going to find out when they don't - then we can have a little chat and prevent a bigger problem from happening," said Susan Masterson, principal at Monroe, in south-central Wisconsin.
In Masterson's School District of Janesville, as in other school systems nationwide, preventing disruptions on the bus is just part of a broad campaign to keep students safe. Background checks for drivers, expanded safety features on buses, training to help drivers communicate with children - all of it is being done to lower the risks of accidents.
A recent string of deadly incidents involving school buses, from Tennessee to Virginia to Missouri, has again pushed safety concerns to the fore. Yet bus travel remains the safest way, by far, for students to get to school, according to the Transportation Research Board.
Each year, about 800 school-age children are killed in motor vehicle crashes during school travel hours. Virtually all those fatalities - 98 percent of them - involve kids who drive to school, get rides in cars, walk or bike. And more than half of those deaths occur when the least experienced drivers, teenagers, are behind the wheel.
About 2 percent of the children killed, 20 students a year, were in school-bus crashes.
"The safest way to improve a school transportation program is to put more kids in school buses," said Robin Leeds, an industry specialist with the National School Transportation Association, which represents the private school-bus industry. "It's clear, statistically."
But that can be a tough sell.
Roughly half of the U.S. school population - 25 million students - get to school or school-related events by bus. The rest favor other means, including older students who want cars to go to work or other places after school. Often parents are the ones who want their kids to have the flexibility of driving, Leeds said.
"School buses aren't taxis. You can't run them on demand," Leeds said. "And when kids want to go to the mall or to a job, that's an issue."
The National PTA has given schools and parents 10 ways to encourage younger kids to "be cool" by following the rules of bus safety. Among those tips: Stand back from the curb, cross at least 10 feet in front of a bus, stay in your seat, don't shout, and obey the driver.
What's missing, according to some transportation and security officials, is training for bus drivers on how to respond to emergencies that have little to do with traffic safety.
More than one in three school-based police officers say violent incidents on school buses are rising, according to an informal survey by the National Association of School Resource Officers. Almost two in three of those officers said that school transportation workers had not received any training over the last few years in how to respond to such emergencies.
Kenneth Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, a consulting company, said drivers often have been given no preparation for what they may encounter: severe behavior among kids, irate parents, hostage situations, even a terrorist situation.
Meanwhile, debate continues over whether buses should be required to have seat belts, as they are in a handful of states.
The National Coalition for School Bus Safety calls the lack of seat belts on buses in most school districts a "grave oversight" and a lost chance to instill a lifesaving habit.
Yet the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found in 2002 that lap belts had little if any benefit in reducing serious or deadly injuries in head-on school bus crashes - and could even increase the chances of injury among young passengers.
The combined use of lap and shoulder belts on school buses could provide some benefit, the agency said.
Masterson, the Wisconsin school principal, says the people who get too little credit in the safety discussion are the bus drivers themselves. They often contend with bad weather, stressful traffic and rambunctious children before the school day even starts.
"If children come to school and they've had a very difficult ride on the bus, they come not ready to learn," she said. "The bus drivers are such important people. They set the stage. It really behooves a district to put energy into making a positive bus ride."
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