Student transportation and constitutional rights

The case of Enright v. Springfield School District is a lesson in the important need for a quality program of training for bus drivers. The case resulted in a jury verdict upheld by the court against a school district and in favor of a seven year old student abused on a bus by older students. Liability against the school district was found because the school district did not train its driver and had policies and practices in place that made environment of the bus unsafe.

The school district owned and operated a bus that transported a 17-year old male student with emotional issues to an approved private school, a 14-year old male with learning disabilities to a private school, and a seven year old girl with Asperger’s syndrome to a private school. In short, the two boys engaged in sexualized conduct toward the girl that caused her significant trauma. Parents filed suit seeking relief via Section 1983 for violations of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, the Americans With Disabilities Act, the IDEA, and Fourteenth Amendment due process rights.

When a government agency’s failure to train amounts to deliberate indifference to protected rights, the agency may be liable for resulting harm. In this case, among other things, the school district did not provide any training to bus drivers; did not provide bus drivers with information about the special needs of children on the bus; did not take steps to separate elementary and high school students, or require the bus driver to do so; and simply instructed its bus drivers to use their best judgment whether to report problems. 

In this case, a videotape of the day in question showed the bus driver did not maintain any control over the students or seek to intervene. According to the evidence, the inappropriate conduct, and thus the harm suffered, was the direct result of the school district’s failure to train the bus driver along with other school district policies, such as not creating and enforcing a code of conduct on its school buses (the 17-year old had a history of such misconduct, but no consequences). 

School districts need to give real attention to transportation issues. As noted by the court, creating and enforcing a code of conduct is a critical component of appropriate transportation. And of course, driver training must occur. Such training, however, should be well-planned and helpful (telling a driver to deal with it is not training). Not only should the training involve refresher information regarding the Department of Transportation manual, but also, among other things, include efforts to maintain a continuous loop of communication regarding student behavior and student needs and encouraging student-parent-driver-supervisor communication; identification of situations requiring expert intervention; information about various disabilities; methods of appropriate behavior control; and seating. Of course, this involves more than just the drivers, as it also depends on a comprehensive plan for transportation policies and the participation and recommendations of the many experts resources available to school districts, such as behavior experts.

Many school districts use independent contracted services in addition to or in place of district owned and operated buses. In such situations, school districts need to be sure their contracts properly protect it and its students (such as assurance of quality, insurance, and indemnification), while also balancing independent contractor rules.

Transporting thousands of students daily to many different destinations in itself is difficult and costly, and more so for special needs students. Moreover, students have little ability to protect themselves in the confines of a bus. Given this reality, a school district must take all reasonable and documented steps to assure that it is providing appropriate and safe transportation. And by all means, being sure that it is not making the situation worse.