Saturday, March 14, 2009

Officials Refuse to Release School Bus Video

After his bus pulled away from the East Rock Global Magnet School, a first-grade boy whipped out a pocketknife and started slashing the seat, school officials said.

The knife was confiscated and the boy disciplined, according to school officials, who did not notify parents of the incident immediately.

The bus ride was captured on videotape, which was not released to parents or the press.

The incident Tuesday afternoon sent one distraught mother scrambling for answers after her young daughter gave a harrowing rendition of what happened on the bus. Another parent said the incident pointed to a larger issue of “out-of-control” behavior on the bus, where the only adult is at the steering wheel.

Catina Hicks learned of the incident when her distressed 7-year-old daughter called her at work Tuesday afternoon. Her daughter reported that a boy on the bus had threatened several students with a knife. This story was later refuted by the school system.

“I heard it was to my son’s throat,” Hicks fumed Tuesday night. Her son is in kindergarten. She said she was disturbed and outraged at her daughter’s story. She was equally outraged that school officials failed to call parents to let them know what had happened, she said.

“How does something like this happen and no one calls me?” she asked.

Officials at the K-8 school on Nash Street waited until Wednesday to contact parents through a letter.

Michelle Wade, spokeswoman for the city school system, reviewed the videotape with other school officials on Wednesday morning. She said the story Hicks heard from her daughter does not match up with the footage from the incident, which shows no threatening behavior.

Ride Interrupted

Here’s what happened, according to Wade:

The bus left the school around 2:30 p.m. Tuesday, carrying about two dozen young pupils, most of them in kindergarten to second grade.

Before the bus got to its first stop, a first-grade boy pulled out a pocketknife and slashed the back of a seat. Kids alerted the driver that the boy had a knife. The driver stopped the bus. She demanded the knife. Another child brought it to her. The driver then turned the bus around and headed back to the school, where the principal met the bus.

The principal, Michael Conte, Jr., got on board. When he asked the kids what had happened, they blurted out answers all at once. Conte calmed them down and got the story. He learned about the seat-cutting and knife confiscation.

“There was nothing mentioned at all about any threatening movements or action,” Wade said. “What [Conte] heard from the children didn’t appear in any way to be something that would be upsetting.”

The bus set out again on its regular route. All the students, including the one who officials said had used the knife, remained on the bus.

The student was disciplined for bringing a knife to school, according to the letter Conte sent home to parents. Because of the student’s age, no police investigation was initiated, Wade said.

How did the kid get the knife?

“That’s a good question,” Wade said. East Rock Global Magnet School, which serves grades K-8, is not equipped with the metal detectors and wands that high schools use to screen for weapons.


After the bus got back on its route, Hicks’ son and daughter were dropped off at a daycare center in the West River neighborhood. They were “visibly upset,” according to Natasha Smith, who runs the facility. Asked what was wrong, Hicks’ daughter reported that her brother and two girls were all threatened with a knife on the bus.

Another staff member told the daughter to call her mom at work. Hicks, a single mother, rushed back from her job in Stamford to pick up her kids. They were “shaken,” she said. She listened to their story. Between dialing public officials to try to get some answers, she tried to stay calm and pacify her kids.

“Violence occurs. This is part of their current reality,” she said. However, she expected a certain level of security on the bus.

“I pay taxes and I can’t even get a safe bus ride?” Hicks fumed.

In the very least, Hicks said the school should have called parents to let them know about the incident, which she said was traumatic for her children.

Wade countered that there was no visible sign of any such trauma.

“We saw the whole video,” Wade said. “There did not appear to be any children that were distraught or concerned or upset. There was quite a bit of animation and frivolity and jumping.”

Hicks also challenged school officials’ decision to put the kids back on the bus route, instead of holding them at school and calling parents to pick them up.

“That was a judgment call,” responded Wade. “Maybe in hindsight, someone would do something different next time, but … there did not seem to be any concern for anyone’s safety.”

Nicol Jones, a spokeswoman for the bus company, First Student Inc., said the driver followed company protocol. “The policy is to return to the school, resolve the incident and make sure that the kids return home in a timely manner.”

She said the driver made sure the kids were OK before proceeding. “We’re always very conscious of incidents of a traumatic nature.”

School officials refused to show the video to the Independent, saying it is property of the bus company, which is hired on a contract with the public schools. The company refused to release the tape.

“It’s not releasable because it’s part of an investigation,” Jones said. The investigation she referred to was internal, not involving police.

Informed Wednesday that the tape showed no signs of any threatening, Hicks asked to see the tape herself. The school system referred her to the bus company, which declined to show it to her, according to the family.

“Out of Control”

Smith, who runs Precious Gift Childcare on Mead Street, said the incident was not unusual, except, of course, for the knife.

It’s normal for kids to arrive at the daycare complaining of hitting and fighting on the bus, Smith said. One factor is that young and older students are mixed together, she said. Another is that there are no adults on board except the bus driver.

New Haven Public Schools provide bus monitors only for special-needs buses, according to Wade. In the other buses, the driver is the only adult.

tasha%20smith%20hands%20up.JPGMelinda Tuhus File Photo“It’s a problem: Hitting, out-of-control behavior,” said Smith (pictured). Often, parents are not contacted right away, she said, and when there’s a videotape to be reviewed, parents are often not given access.

Smith is a member of the parent advocacy group Teach our Children. She criticized the school system for putting children at risk.

“There should at all times be another adult on the bus,” she argued, “because bus drivers can’t possibly deal with the issues that come up and drive at the same time.”

“It’s just not safe,” she said. “The kids are the ones who pay for it because they’re not being supervised properly. Their safety is at risk.”

Wade was asked to respond to Smith’s call for more adult supervision.

“It’s a point well-taken,” Wade said. The issue comes down to a question of resources, she said.

Meanwhile, Hicks said the incident has cast serious doubts over her children’s safety on their way home from school.

“I don’t plan on putting them back on the bus again,” the mother said.