Seating charts, driver training aim to mitigate bad school bus behaviors in Wichita

When Wichita school buses roll out again this fall, elementary and middle school students will have assigned seats and drivers will have training on managing student behavior.

The measures, intended to improve behavior on school buses and establish consistency across the district, are the result of a partnership between school leaders and First Student Inc., the district’s bus contractor.

“It’s been something that’s been needed for awhile,” said John Billigmeier, senior location manager for First Student.

“It’s putting more on the driver’s plate as far as empowering them, and it’s taking a little bit off the schools’ plate so they don’t have to follow up on the little stuff,” he said.

“Hopefully, as a result, it will be a better bus ride for everybody.”

Over the summer, new drivers will get four hours of training as part of a program called “In the Driver’s Seat: A Roadmap to Managing Student Behavior on the Bus.”

The video modules and lesson plans are part of Randy Sprick’s Safe & Civil Schools program, a component of Wichita schools’ five-year plan to improve behavior and student achievement.

The rest of First Student’s 800 employees – bus drivers and monitors – will be trained during orientation in August, Billigmeier said. Drivers will get refresher training during the school year at monthly safety meetings, he said.

Bus drivers also will implement mandatory seating charts for elementary and middle school students starting this fall. Officials at each school will help with the seat assignments, “because they know the students better than the drivers,” Billigmeier said.

“You’ve got certain children who … just can’t behave well when they sit next to each other, so it will definitely eliminate some of that,” he said.

High school students will be allowed to sit where they want unless a problem arises.

During training, drivers will learn techniques to talk with students and de-escalate problem behaviors. Officials categorized problem behaviors into three tiers: Tier 1 includes minor problems such as chewing gum or throwing trash; Tier 2, safety issues such as standing or moving around on the bus; and Tier 3, serious offenses such as fighting, weapons or sexual misconduct.

“Ninety percent of our problems are those first-tier problems, so it really comes down to the drivers educating the students … with positive corrections,” Billigmeier said.

In the past, he said, drivers were instructed to write up all offenses on behavior reports and turn them in to school principals. Now drivers will be urged to handle minor problems on their own.

“If you ask a child to spit the gum out and the child spits the gum out, is that really an issue worth writing up? If the child is complying, we won’t have to let the school know about that. If it becomes habitual, then we get the schools involved,” he said.

Billigmeier said the new measures are intended to establish consistent behavior expectations across the district, wherever students might be.

“All schools are doing all the same things, and all the drivers know the expectations because they shouldn’t change from school to school,” he said.