Officials ride school bus to look at safety issues

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Whitefish Middle School Principal Josh Branstetter addresses the Whitefish School Board and administrators during a transportation-focused work session last week. (Daniel McKay/Whitefish Pilot)

The Whitefish School Board trustees got to see things from the student’s point of view last week — from the seat of a school bus.

The board held its work session at Rocky Mountain Transportation on Edgewood Drive, where they discussed various aspects of student transportation and how riding the bus is an extension of the classroom itself. The meeting also included a short ride during sunset to give the board an idea of what students experience on the bus.

Rocky Mountain Transportation has been working with Whitefish Schools for 72 years and currently operates 12 primary bus routes and two special needs routes throughout the school year.

During the meeting, board members and school administrators discussed the various roles bus transportation plays with regard to education and ways to make buses safer.

Superintendent Heather Davis Schmidt said consistency is key between the schools and buses.

“I think a lot of the focus and work that we’re doing at the school district is around our universals as part of our Multiple Tiered Systems of Support, and ensuring that we are aligning our behaviors across all aspects of school,” she said. “This is just one more aspect of school — as you come to school and leave school and go to activities the learning that our students do ... continues on the bus as well as in the classroom.”

October is Bus Safety Month and also the month of School Bus Safety Week, which serves to spread awareness about the importance of school bus safety.

Josh Branstetter, principal at Whitefish Middle School, acts as the district’s transportation liaison with Rocky Mountain Transportation.

Branstetter noted how school staff members — including bus drivers — are part of the district’s implementation of the new social-emotional learning curriculum, called Getting Along Together.

“It was beneficial for our bus drivers to go and learn alongside our paraprofessionals, food service staff and playground supervisors. Everybody is speaking the same language. They’re understanding the terminology that Muldown is using and they can incorporate it on the bus. It’s a continual learning process for all kids,” Branstetter said.

Dale Duff, owner of Rocky Mountain Transportation, said he and his staff got a lot out of the training. Duff demonstrated a hand signal for “stop talking” that’s used in the curriculum, and explained how his staff understands its meaning.

“We had a meeting after and we thought it was great stuff. It was kind of like a new language to us,” Duff said.

In addition, the board discussed school bus safety.

The primary issue that seems to be facing school bus safety is how driver of other vehicles react to school buses stopping and clearing up confusion over the different situations that occur when a school bus stops on a four-lane highway. In Montana, the rules vary depending on whether there’s a defined median.

On Highway 93, for instance, the situation changes. Upon exiting Whitefish and heading south, all four lanes of traffic are required to stop when the bus stops because there is no defined median, only the middle left-turn lane.

Past Happy Valley and up to Montana Raceway Park, there is a defined median with grass — oncoming traffic does not need to stop for a bus in the opposite lane.

Davis Schmidt said she and other administrators have been trying to work with the Montana Department of Transportation and Montana Highway Patrol to come up ways to make pickup and drop-off safer for students. While things like bus turnouts have been suggested, both entities suggested the district put out a local public service announcement to get the message out to drivers.

However, the number of people traveling on the highway extend far beyond the school district.

“It’s been an interesting travel down this road, because the Montana Department of Transportation and Montana Highway Patrol have essentially had the perception that we should be able to do this ourselves, locally. This is a school district issue. And there’s a reality — we have 1,800 students in our school district. There are 20,000 cars that travel Highway 93 every single day. So just educating our local school district about the safety issue is not enough,” she said. “The greatest danger for students with regard to getting to and from school is getting on and off school buses. That’s where the greatest risk is, that’s where the greatest number of accidents, fatalities, injuries occur.”

The district plans to put out a short, one-minute public service announcement this month that will be spread on social media, television and radio, explaining the different situations for when to stop on four-lane highways.

Another issue discussed was how to get more students on buses. Increasing ridership would reduce both the traffic at the schools during peak pickup and drop-off times and reduce vehicle emissions.

District Curriculum Director Ryder Delaloye noted how the experience of bus ridership changes as students grow older.

“It changes by the time kids get to late elementary, early middle school — that bus experience, that excitement and fun of it shifts to being a very stigmatizing experience. That only certain kids ride the bus, and where does that come from? Is it perpetuated by the community, parents or the students?” he said. “We tout ourselves as a sustainable school district. We won’t be able to accomplish that if we can’t figure out a long term solution for our bus ridership.”

Duff said the answer likely lies in educating parents and students alike about the benefits the bus system presents.

“We have to convince parents that their kids are not only safe on the bus, statistically, but they’re in a comfortable environment. Not just comfortable in terms of the seat, but in terms of relationships on the bus,” he said. “What we’d really like to see is the student saying, ‘Hey Dad, I’d like to ride the bus.’”

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