Legal Issues Ride along with School Bus Drivers: The Legal Minefield of Education Doesn't End at the School Door, but Extends to the Bus Stop and Beyond

By Darden, Edwin C. | Phi Delta Kappan, November 2012 | Go to article overview

Legal Issues Ride along with School Bus Drivers: The Legal Minefield of Education Doesn't End at the School Door, but Extends to the Bus Stop and Beyond


Darden, Edwin C., Phi Delta Kappan


One of the most crucial and routinely under-appreciated contributors in the public education pipeline is the school bus driver. After all, drivers are generally part-time, they merely cart students back and forth, and they do not impart knowledge in the classroom or make tough budget decisions.

But hold on a moment. As the wheels of the bus go round and round, legal issues abound. The solid judgment of a bus driver can be vital in reducing the liability of school districts and ensuring the health and safety of students.

Like a teacher, a bus driver is responsible for a large group of students who, on any given day, can range from cooperative and well-behaved to rambunctious mischief makers. Three key differences that make a school bus leader's job just as challenging as faculty:

* The bus operator's classroom is on wheels, meaning he or she must devote alert attention to the road (and all the hazards thereof) while managing more than 50 multiage distractions in the rearview mirror.

* Drivers are expects maintain cordial relation-ships with stressed or late parents at bus stops, while simultaneously maintaining time schedules, enforcing district rules and policies, and keeping in touch with dispatchers.

* Unlike excellent teachers, by necessity, the driver's back is to the action most of the time.

For many, the words "school bus" conjure images of roadway accidents or mishaps that occur while students are getting on or off the bus. But, let's take it a step further and explore how bus drivers are not only essential district employees, but a first-line defense against lawsuits on the one hand and a potential source of litigation on the other.

A lesson in civility

A federal court in Indiana recently affirmed the right of bus drivers to prevent students from uttering offensive and hurtful words. R.Z. vs. Carmel Clay Schools concluded that the First Amendment Free Speech and Free Exercise Clauses don't protect students who insult others while riding to school.

The April 2012 decision involved a girl who separately told a Jewish and a gay student they were going to hell, according to bus driver Betty Campbell.

For background, let's travel Back to November 2008.Two days after the election of President Barack Obama, Campbell demanded the students' attention before letting her passengers off the bus.

Using the loudspeaker, Campbell said, "This week, we had a very historic election. OK. It's called diversity in this country. The diversity here--we've got kids on this bus who are Jewish, Catholic, I've had Muslims, I've had Buddhists, Sikhs, fine. ... What I will not tolerate is your own personal views being espoused on this bus that you are going to go to hell if you don't do it the way I do it.

"We've had this conversation before; we've had it for three years. We're not going to have it again. If you can't believe in tolerance toward one another, you don't belong here. ... You take care of you, and you let everybody else take care of them and you know what, we're a lot better off for it. Is there any complaints? I didn't think so."

The Indiana bus driver later confronted R.Z., who would soon become the plaintiff, telling the 8th grader that she was the prime offender, but that she was plugged into her iPod rather than listening during Campbell's lecture. R.Z. said she heard the first part, but thought the comments were directed at the 7th graders in front of her, so she turned her music back on.

R.Z.'s parents first filed a complaint with the school. When Campbell kept her job, they filed suit.

The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana declared, "No reasonable jury could find ... that Campbell's speeches deterred the exercise of protected First Amendment speech rights." On religious freedom grounds, the court rejected the student's claim saying, "... [W]hile R.Z.'s right to tell another student that he is going to hell may be the expression of her religious belief, and it may be colloquially correct to say that this expression has been 'burdened' perhaps even substantially . …

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