WAXAHACHIE

It was not until a school bus driver returned back to the Waxahachie ISD Transportation Department that a six-year-old student was found still on board Thursday afternoon. A second student, 7, was dropped off nearly a mile from home after the driver missed his stop.

The unfortunate incidents both resulted in police response and an internal investigation by the Waxahachie ISD. Both are perfect examples of what a new technology implemented by two neighboring school districts hopes to prevent.

But even high-tech cards and tablets do not help solve the dwindling number of available school bus drivers, even despite pay increases across much of Ellis County. 

THURSDAY'S UNFOLDINGS

Waxahachie Police Lt. Marcus Brown confirmed that officers responded to two separate welfare calls Thursday concerning students transported by Waxahachie ISD school buses.

The first incident involved Shon Johnson, who is the mother of the 7-year-old Marvin Elementary student that was dropped off at the wrong location Thursday afternoon.

Johnson said her family moved to Waxahachie from Cedar Hill two months ago and was excited to enroll “in a better school system.” She noted this is also her son's first year to ride the bus.

Johnson said she received a phone call just after 3:15 p.m. from her brother, who stated her son had not ever exited the bus near their home.

“I called the school immediately," Johnson said. "They gave me the number for transportation and the phone is so busy, all I got was a beeping. I made eight phone calls and the school told me there’s nothing they can do from the office.”

An employee at Marvin Elementary did finally reach someone at the Waxahachie ISD Transportation Department and informed Johnson that the bus driver had been radioed to return to the intended stop.

Her son was not on the bus when it arrived back at the designated drop-off location for their home is on the corner of Kaufman Street and East Ross Street. Instead, he was let off of the bus at the insection of North Aiken Street and Martin Luther King Jr Blvd, which, according to Google Maps, is 0.9 miles away from the intended stop. The distance would be a 20-minute walk or four-minute car ride.

Johnson stated she called the Waxahachie Police Department at 5:59 pm. to report her son as missing. About five minutes later, she received word that a call about a lost boy that matched her son's description had been made.

Johnson was quickly reunited with her son near the wrong drop-off location. She stated the family returned home and spoke to the acting superintendent, Shelle Blaylock, and Marvin Elementary principal Christy Bailey over the phone about the issue. Johnson said the two were very apologetic.

“I would like to know what system they are going to implement so this does not happen again because my child was not the only one who was dropped off at the wrong stop yesterday,” Johnson stressed.

In a second incident involving a WISD student, three Waxahachie Police officers also responded to a welfare call at the WISD Transportation Department at approximately 3:30 p.m. Thursday. The six-year-old boy was found by the bus driver after returning to the department.

Jenny Bridges, WISD Director of Communications, confirmed the bus driver of the incident involving Johnson's son is still employed by the district but did not drive a bus the Friday morning. Bridges assured the situation is being investigated thoroughly.

"The safety and security of our students — on our campuses and on our buses — is our number-one priority," Bridges stated via email. "We are currently working to investigate the sequence of events that led to the situation in question. Once we have thoroughly investigated, we will be reviewing our transportation practices and policies to determine how we can improve. We understand that parents need to know that their children are safe from the time they enter our care to the time they arrive home, and we will continue to strive every day to earn their confidence."

TRACKING WITH TECH

These two unfortunate events are the exact situations nearby Midlothian and Maypearl ISDs hope a new technology — the SMART Tag — will prevent.

As reported by the Midlothian Mirror in Aug. 2017, Midlothian ISD became the first district in Ellis County and ninth in Texas to implement the new Secured Mobility Authorized Ridership Technology into its daily bus routes.

Developed by Secured Mobility LLC, a privately held technology company located in Georgetown, the SMART Tag system is designed to ensure authorized ridership for students who utilize the school bus.

“We have a safety and security committee, and they wanted to see if there was a way we could enhance bus safety. And then we also had our district transportation team looking at a way to improve systems and collect information regarding transportation,” explained said Karen Permetti, Midlothian ISD Chief Communications Officer, to the Mirror. “With these two ideas in mind, they explored what systems could be used and found the SMART Tag system because it bridged both needs."

According to smart-tag.net, the full-featured operation utilizes Radio-Frequency Identification technology and cloud-connected tablet computers in each school bus to provide accurate, real-time information to increase safety and security of students and faculty.

The process is relatively simple.

The student swipes a personalized SMART Tag when entering or exiting the school bus on the bus driver's tablet, which tracks the number of students on board and dropped off, and can even designate a seating chart. If a student forgets or loses a card during the school day, the driver has the option to manually check him or her onto the bus.

Parents also have the option to sign up to receive an email or text message update when the student is 10-15 minutes away from his or her designated drop-off location.

“From the security aspect of things, if a bus breaks down, it sends a notification for us to come and retrieve them,” Permetti previously stated. “If something happens like a wreck, we will know and can automatically pull from our Transportation Center, log into the system, and see all the kids that are still on that bus and contact all the parents that their kids are okay.”

Permetti noted the SMART Tag technology cost Midlothian ISD about $100,000 and was implemented last fall. Maypearl ISD announced just before the new school year that it too had purchased the service.

DRIVER SHORTAGE

Another issue facing school districts across the state is a bus driver shortage. Waxahachie ISD is no exception to the deficit, especially after adding a few buses and changing multiple routes to address the addition of Coleman Junior High and more students becoming eligible to ride the bus to the high school.

According to an article published by the Texas Association of School Boards in March 2017, the resounding response to the poll question, "Is relief on the horizon for bus driver shortages in Texas," was an emphatic "no."

The report also noted that School Bus Fleet magazine found only six percent of national school bus contracting companies reported to have enough drivers in 2015. That number increased to 11 percent the following year. However, in those same two years, 28 percent of school districts reported having a severe bus driver shortage while 31 percent reported the same in 2016.

The report also noted that school districts across the state have attempted to raise the salary for school bus drivers in hopes of attracting more, high-character operators. But the increased pay has still not resulted in more drivers.

For instance, Waxahachie ISD lists its bus driver position on the district's website to pay in the range of $12.24—17.06 per hour with responsibilities to "ensure safe and orderly transportation of students on assigned route."

Midlothian ISD does not currently list any openings for bus drivers on its website but does have positions posted for bus monitors. A bus driver in MISD is paid between $13.35—20.03 an hour and a monitor is listed to make an hourly wage between $9.68—14.52.

Maypearl ISD does not list any openings for bus drivers, either. The district website notes bus drivers are paid on 176-day contracts with a starting rate of $30 per route or between $10,560—16,985 a year.

Red Oak ISD has openings for bus drivers listed on its website. The district pays its drivers between $12.78—18.38 per hour.

An NBC 5 report on the driver shortage in Allen ISD noted the pay of several districts around the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, which included Allen ($16.75), Dallas ($16.63), Frisco ($16.63), Garland ($16.10), Mansfield ($15.50) and Rockwall ($14.50) ISDs.

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Andrew Branca/Daily Light also contributed to this report. Portions of this report first appeared in an article written by Chelsea Groomer in the Midlothian Mirror, a Daily Light sister newspaper, in Aug. 2017.