Get on the Bus and Buckle Up: Navigating Liability in Transporting Students

Posted by ASHLEY STORY | Jul 29, 2019 | 0 Comments

Bus drivers are essential team members in a school district; they are the first and, usually, the last employee who has contact with students each school day.  To that end, districts must hire, train and, when required, discipline drivers with student safety and supervision in mind.  For districts to operate efficiently and appropriately, bus drivers must be supported by transportation personnel along with building administrators and teachers. It takes a village to raise a child – nowadays, bus drivers and bus assistants not only transport students but also serve as mentors and disciplinarians.  Drivers must possess the necessary skills to communicate with parents; resolve behavior problems; ensure proper supervision; and routinely maintain documentation.

Over the past several years, we have seen an increase in the number of lawsuits filed against districts arising from an incident involving a school bus.  These suits include an incident where a driver stopped the bus in a rural area to allow a kindergarten student to relieve herself rather than wet herself; an incident where a student fell asleep on the bus and was not discovered by the driver during the post-route inspection; and several incidents where a bus assistant allegedly assaulted a student.  Suits also are common where a parent/guardian alleges that, because of inappropriate supervision on the bus, their child was sexually assaulted by another student.  While the South Carolina Department of Education (DOE) is responsible for carrying liability insurance to cover roadway accidents that result in injury to bus passengers and/or third parties, because drivers are employed by a district rather than DOE, districts are responsible for defending against claims that a student was injured because the driver did not properly supervise students.

Anyone interested in becoming a bus driver must complete and submit a district employment application; complete and submit an application to DOE to attend the required new bus driver class; attend the 20-hour new bus driver class; pass the DOE test; obtain a Department of Transportation (DOT) physical; obtain the requisite medical tests; pass the behind-the-wheel training and commercial driver's license (CDL) test; and successfully complete a physical performance test, drug screening, and SLED background check. 

In addition to pre-employment training, bus drivers must participate in a minimum of ten hours of in-service annual training.  While half of these hours consist of mandated DOE modules, five of the hours are selected by the employing district.  These hours should include training on supervising students, handling student misconduct and interacting with special education students.  To train bus drivers and assistants who transport special needs students, many districts ask their drivers and bus assistants to complete “The People Factor” and “Transporting Students with Special Needs” DOE modules.  In June 2018, DOE instituted a new in-service training called “Get on the Bus! Behavior Supports for Bus Drivers and Paraprofessionals.”  All drivers also should be trained on the district policies that impact their employment, including use of social media and sexual harassment.

Special education bus drivers are required to have an additional four hours of training every two years. This training should include the following topics: special education disciplinary requirements, confidentiality requirements pursuant to the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), and disciplinary documentation. Dependent upon the needs of the students on a specific bus, districts also may train drivers on the use of appropriate restraints and the handling of medical needs. Because driving a school bus is much more than monitoring the roadways, we recommend that districts develop a strategic training plan involving not only transportation personnel but also building and district level administration.

Though buses are operated by district employees, DOE controls and performs maintenance on buses as necessary.  If a bus needs to be repaired, a bus driver must complete the requisite form and provide it to the transportation coordinator/supervisor. The supervisor must then forward the form to the appropriate department. Drivers should never attempt to drive a bus that is not safe and must ensure that appropriate inspections and safety assessments are completed daily. Inspections should include checking that the bus turns on, that all lights work, that all cameras are working, that the emergency door(s) are locked, that the bus has a First-Aid kit, and that the bus radio is working. 

While not required by law, most school buses have one or more cameras installed to promote the safety of passengers.  Though school buses are maintained by DOE, if a district decides to install cameras on its buses, the district should ensure that all cameras are properly installed, inspected, and maintained, as DOE does not assume responsibility for cameras.

Recordings from bus cameras can be used for student disciplinary purposes as well as for determining whether students were appropriately supervised on the bus.  Because of the increased number of fights and alleged sexual incidents occurring on buses – oftentimes captured both by bus footage and students using personal cell phones, districts must have working cameras on the buses and know and follow the district's video retention policy.  If the camera over-records every thirty days, it is important to know when and if the recordings are automatically uploaded to a remote server or if the recordings must be manually copied to a server or other electronic device for storage.

We recommend cameras be inspected routinely to ensure they are properly working and that significant recordings are not be over-recorded or otherwise lost.  If a bus driver knows or suspects that a camera is not working, the bus driver should immediately report the malfunction to the transportation supervisor.  The supervisor or transportation director should then document the malfunction, inspect the camera and repair as necessary.  If a district is sued over a bus incident, it is extremely important that district officials are able to locate the relevant camera footage.

We trust this information will be helpful as districts begin to prepare for the upcoming school year.  If you have questions or would like us to assist in training your bus drivers and bus assistants, please feel free to contact our office.

About the Author


Originally from Cheraw, South Carolina in Chesterfield County, Ashley Story takes a personal interest in public education since she attended public schools in her home county and graduated from Cheraw High School. Public school teachers and administrators are highly regarded by Ashley, as she gai...


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