Parents of Montgomery County students are voicing frustration after they say their children have had to sit on the floor of crowded school buses.
The claims surface as the state’s largest school district experiences explosive growth — more than 10,000 students in the past five years — forcing more than half of its schools to use temporary classrooms because buildings are full.
The collateral damage, parents say, is that students, some as young as first grade, are stuffed three or four to a two-person seat, or are required to sit on the floor on their way to and from school.
Some middle school students say they sit on classmates’ laps to avoid the floor, while some high school students say they opt to stand for the length of their commute.
“Those buses are not designed to have kids standing or sitting on the floor,” said Alison Gillespie, chairwoman of the Montgomery County Council of Parent Teacher Associations’ Safe Routes to School Committee. “It’s obviously a safety concern.”
Each situation violates state law that says students cannot be required to stand on a school bus or sit on the floor.
Students are 70 times more likely to get to school safely on a bus than in a car because buses are heavily regulated and designed to prevent crashes, according to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA).
They are not required to have seat belts because passengers, sitting in their seats, are protected from crashes by “strong, closely-spaced seats with energy-absorbing seatbacks,” according to the NHTSA.
MCPS guidelines say students are not permitted to stand on buses “except during the first few weeks of the new school year when schedules and routes are being adjusted, or occasionally during the year when breakdowns occur or temporary needs arise.”
But now, more than three months into the 2019-20 academic year, parents and community activists continue to sound alarms about crowded buses.
Melissa King, a real estate agent in Clarksburg, drives her son to Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville every morning because the school bus is too crowded.
King’s son is in a magnet program and often needs to take sports equipment or instruments to school, she said. But because there are so many students on the bus, there is no room for them to sit comfortably or bring extra bags onboard.
So, instead, King drives the 18 miles from their home to Richard Montgomery every morning. It usually takes about 45 minutes.
“He says to me, ‘I literally can’t fit on the bus and if I have anything with me, it’s going to stop up the aisle and nobody will be able to get by,’ ” King said in an interview last week. “If they’re going to be on a bus for 45 minutes, they’d like to be able to use their time to do things like homework, but you can’t really do that when your elbows are tucked into your ribcage and you can’t move and it’s loud.”
Gboyinde Onijala, an MCPS spokeswoman, said on Monday that there have been only a handful of reports of overcrowded buses this school year. In many cases, the problem isn’t actually a lack of adequate space, she said.
“What you often see is a situation where you run into students who don’t like to make room on the bus,” Onijala said. “For example, in a three-seater, you may have two eighth-graders who don’t want to scoot over for a sixth grader.”
When a crowding problem is reported, MCPS staff will do a “walk through” of the bus and if it is determined that the bus is too crowded, routes are changed, she said.
Unlike Prince George’s County, where nearly 100 bus routes are without drivers, Montgomery County schools does not have a bus driver shortage, Onijala said.
MCPS has a fleet of more than 1,300 buses that travel approximately 112,000 cumulative miles each day. On average, 105,000 of MCPS’ 166,000 students ride on a school bus each day.
Gillespie, with MCCPTA, said parents often report that it’s difficult to contact the school district’s Transportation Department to report problems, though. By the time they do, many, like King, have decided to drive their children to school.
“When someone finally does that observational ride — because so many have given up because they’re scared of the stories they’ve heard from their kids about kids on the floor or pushing each other out of seats — the bus is almost empty and they say it’s not a problem,” Gillespie said.
That’s not always the case, though.
Eileen Russell, a parent of two MCPS children — a son at Ashburton Elementary and daughter at North Bethesda Middle — said her children told her that classmates had to stand on crowded buses early this year. She contacted the school district’s Transportation Department.
The school district immediately addressed and resolved the problem, Russell said.
More walkers is more ‘economically efficient’
Some have used bus crowding as an argument against an ongoing countywide review of school boundaries.
MCPS in January authorized the analysis, which tasks consultants with gathering data about schools’ enrollment and socioeconomic composition. The final report is due in May, and consultants will not recommend any boundary changes.
Many community members, however, fear changes will be made in pursuit of more diverse schools that will force students to take long bus rides to class.
In a letter to community members last week, MCPS Superintendent Jack Smith and school board President Shebra Evans wrote that, despite rumors of a “busing plan that will reassign students from one end of the county to the other,” the analysis will “continue to maximize walkers, in no small part because it is economically efficient.”
Impacts beyond the bus
Aside from the obvious safety problems crowded buses present, Gillespie, who has been tracking the issue for more than a year, said there are other concerns.
Drivers can become overwhelmed or distracted having to manage a crowded busload of students who can get rowdy after a long day at school, Gillespie said.
More parents driving their children to school means more cars on county roads and more traffic and pollution.
More parents dropping students off in the morning forces some principals to set up a “traffic control system on the fly” outside their schools, Gillespie said.
And the solution isn’t necessarily deploying more buses, according to Gillespie.
“It’s not a matter of needing more buses,” Gillespie said. “It’s a matter of figuring out how to better design our bus routes.”
Many school districts use software or computer algorithms to design the most efficient bus routes. The thousands of routes MCPS buses take each day are designed by staff at the school district’s central offices.
This year, the Montgomery County Council approved more than $1 million to expand the county’s Kids Ride Free program to students younger than 18 to all RideOn bus service hours.
That was an important step to give older students an alternative to riding school buses, freeing space for others, Gillespie said.
“MCPS wants to work with us to solve this problem, but we have to do better,” she said. “What we have here right now is an out-of-date way of designing and implementing our routes and you can see the effects of that.”
Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at email@example.com