The Law and Student Transportation

By Edwin C. Darden

The big yellow school buses that move millions of students to and from school each day provide a valuable service. And yet, superintendents and school board members are secretly aware of this inconvenient truth: The oversized taxis are also a movable feast of legal problems.

Operating mass transit busing each day is inherently risky. Fleets must be maintained, drivers must be trained and stay alert on duty, students can get sick, other vehicles are unpredictable, and kids -- little ones and teens -- can be impulsive inside and outside the bus. In addition, some students commute long distances, while others travel to field trips or extracurricular activities, adding yet another element of chance.

Busing kids already is expensive and clunky, but legally speaking, the motto “you can’t be too careful” comes to mind. In general, courts say you have a duty to take reasonable steps to ensure bus safety, but judges realize you can’t encase every student in bubble wrap or inoculate each one with healthy doses of caution or common sense.

In short (despite what personal injury attorneys might proclaim), not every incident or accident means the school district is to blame. State courts are empowered to determine liability. We will cover several court decisions in which public schools prevailed, and two in which the plaintiff triumphed.

In general, state law requires school districts to transport students for free. Each day, according to the School Bus Information Clearinghouse, about 460,000 school buses transport more than 24 million students between home and school or to school-related activities. The website (www.schoolbusinfo. org) asserts, “There is no safer way to transport a child than in a school bus.”

But with that many kids and that many places and 10 months or more of school attendance, stuff is bound to happen. That is where the legal rubber meets the road.

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