On March 28, Idaho Gov. Butch Otter signed into law Senate Bill 1232, which is designed to protect Idaho school bus drivers from civil or criminal liability if they must intervene to help a child thought to be in imminent danger of harm.
The original intent of the measure, which won unanimous support in both the House and Senate earlier that month, is to extend the state’s Good Samaritan law to school bus drivers whose job has been complicated by bullying and other violence.
The current law will be amended so that “a school bus driver shall be immune from civil or criminal liability for reasonable acts taken in coming to the aid of anyone whom the school bus driver reasonably believes to be in imminent danger of harm or injury.”
Idaho Education Association president Penni Cyr noted that the Good Samaritan law does not mix well with district policy in general, so this legislation was drafted in order to protect bus drivers from criminal or financial liability if they jump in to help when a child on the bus may be in danger.
“We want to make it okay for bus drivers to step in when it's necessary and stop these kinds of things without worrying about themselves and what kind of repercussions they could face,” Cyr told a local news station earlier this year. “It's important that our children feel safe on our buses, and it's important that our bus drivers feel safe to do their job and to help the kids they take care of on their ride to and from school.”
Darrel Christie, assistant manager of the Nampa-based Brown Bus Company, which operates buses for several school districts, said he supports the proposed legislation for both personal and professional reasons.
“Personally, I do feel the drivers should be protected under the law. That’s our job is to keep these kids safe,” Christie noted. “We are there to transport them safely but to watch over them also. If we can see things and recognize those signs of being bullied or being a bully, then we can refer the issue to someone who is trained to deal with it. We are trained only to a point, to intervene and put a stop to it right now.”
If more students viewed their school bus drivers and aides as their advocates, he explained, then they would be likely to come forward more and report bullying incidents. Christie also pointed out that bus drivers and school officials need to be discreet to help protect bullying victims from further abuse.
Christie knows first-hand how important it is to protect the privacy of students who are victims, witnesses or bullies themselves.
“I was bullied as a youngster. One time I told my mom and she made a stink about it at school — then after school I was beat up again,” he recalled, noting that another time, he was on the opposite side and harassed a fellow student. “I felt so bad afterward and I vowed I would never do it again.”
In his current role, Christie said he tries to raise awareness among his staff through training that included watching the documentary film “Bully.”
“It left me with a feeling of ‘What can I do to help?’ and that’s what I want to get my drivers to feel. Nine out of 10 calls I get are related to student behavior on the bus. That’s the war we’re fighting right now,” he added.
Darrell Rickard, transportation director at Lakeland Joint School District in Rathdrum, located in the Idaho Panhandle, said the new measure would be helpful in clarifying what steps school bus drivers may take to ensure the safety of individual students. His current policy is that employees should not touch the students unless it is a life-and-death situation such as a medical emergency.
“If there’s a fight, we ask our bus drivers to pull over and contact dispatch,” Rickard said. “They are instructed to scream as loud as they can (at the offenders) to knock it off, and if it doesn’t work, to pull over and call dispatch right away. I’ve talked this over with many drivers — they have a problem watching a kid get beat up.”
Should the bill become law, Rickard stressed there could be problems proving the school bus driver acted reasonably without evidence like video footage. He is in the process of installing video camera systems inside every bus, and so far has outfitted about one-third of his fleet.
“The cameras have been invaluable. I think it helps some bus behaviors. It certainly protects drivers and children both. With a bill like that, the problem will be that it will have to be proven on tape that the driver didn’t intend to do anything malicious to the student,” he explained.
Many years ago, he recalled experiencing the kind of scenario that SB 1232 aims to prevent. One of his drivers had to step in during a bus fight, and she pulled one child off of another by the nape of his collar. The child’s family sued this driver for her action but did not prevail in court.
Doug Scott, director of transportation at the Idaho Department of Education, told STN he was not aware of this specific bill but he wondered if its protections might also apply to administering first aid aboard the bus — a topic recently discussed during state training.
“When we got first aid training, there was some conversation about administering first aid to your ability because you didn’t want to do more harm than good,” said Scott.