Syracuse school bus drivers complain of dangerous and threatening student behavior

Bus drivers Michelle White and Mark Parker speak with CNY Central's Jim Kenyon

The nation was shocked last June over a YouTube video showing bus monitor Karen Klein being relentlessly bullied by middle school students from a Rochester suburb, but some drivers in the Syracuse School District say they have to put up with worse behaviors constantly on some of their runs.

Two school bus drivers contacted investigative reporter Jim Kenyon to expose what they say are shocking and potentially dangerous behaviors on city school buses. They also claim that local company managers for First Student not only ignore their complaints but retaliate against them.

Michelle White and Mark Parker spoke out after they and 13 other drivers met privately with a human resources official with First Student on Friday, November 9.

First Student is a nationally based transportation company that has the contract with the Syracuse School District to transport thousands of kids to and from school every day.

Parker, a former union steward at First Student, described some of the abuse he has endured to CNY Central's Jim Kenyon. "I've been severely choked. I've been stabbed with a pencil. I've been called everything you can think of and then some. I've been urinated on, and nothing gets done," says Parker.

White added, "The students won't remain in their seats. They do spit in your face. They call us every possible name in the book. They belittle us... call us old, fat, ugly. They try to make fun of our family, Let alone the physical treatment, they do punch us, hit us, shove us."

"It makes a very uncomfortable nervous atmosphere, trying to drive, always having to look in the mirror to keep the bus under control... you have to pull over 5 or 6 times on a run to get control of your bus," claims White.

The drivers say the problems occur city-wide, but they say the most severe incidents occur on the runs to Beard School on Kennedy Street, which is on Syracuse's south side.

Parker and White say many of the children who attend Beard School have learning and emotional disabilities. "Nothing gets done, nothing. You're told to get them home the best way you can and as safe as possible," says Parker.

White says she was due to be fired because the company accused her of taking cigarette breaks and wasting time on the job. Though she was reinstated after mediation, White says the company needed an excuse to keep her quiet.

Parker says he was fired for talking back to a student who was harassing him.

First Student Assistant Manager Laura Dowling told Kenyon, "It has been kicked up to the regional level and they are dealing with the situation. I can't talk to you."

Company spokesperson Timothy Stokes issued a statement from their corporate offices in Cincinnati Ohio that said, "We would not terminate a driver for reporting student misconduct on their routes. In fact we encourage our drivers to report any behavior they deem unsafe to themselves or the students we transport."

The statement also explained the reason Parker was fired: "The driver in question was terminated for issues pertaining to professionalism."

Syracuse School Transporation Director Pat Bailey expressed confidence in the management of First Student. She says there's "no truth" to the allegation of retailiation for reporting student misbehavior.

As for problems with the Beard School run, Bailey says "the Principal at Beard works very well with us. She does whatever she needs to do to maker sure the buses ride safe, but sometimes they leave the school and things happen. Then the drivers, in a safe location, pull over and address it. To get them home safe is my number 1 priority."

Bailey says problems with student behavior "never gets tossed aside. She points out that so far this school year, 1,177 incidents of misconduct on buses have been reported to her office, compared to 1.317 during the same period last year.

"I want parents in the city to know that we address everything." Bailey said.