OAKLAND -- Montera Middle School held an AC Transit Town Hall meeting to address parents' concerns about AC transit service and the agency's method of managing schoolchildren while in transit.
Montera Middle School Principal Tina Tranzor organized the April 24 meeting after complaints from parents about the 642 line, which services the Montclair area via Snake Road.
"Although I can appreciate how difficult it must be for the driver to drive when the middle school kids are extremely noisy, this driver in the afternoon 642 is repeatedly extremely frustrated with the kids and not handling it well," said Kristie Boering, the mother of a sixth-grader.
AC Transit officials confirmed that the noise level on the bus was too loud for the driver to continue to drive the designated route. AC Transit buses are equipped with cameras and microphones. A review of the video footage from Feb. 25 found the driver screaming at the kids to quiet down.
"I am worried about the escalation, about how frustrated the driver reportedly is, and that her method of handling the unacceptable noise (stopping for long periods of time on the road) is causing more problems than it is solving," Boering said. "She needs some sort of help or intervention because what she is doing is not working. Some kids are getting off the bus in odd places, and it is starting to have an impact on schedules with these unexpected delays."
Video footage confirmed that the bus driver stopped the bus, effectively blocking Snake Road, and confronted the youths about the noise level. AC Transit officials said that the bus was stopped for eight minutes. Some children got off the bus and walked home.
Although children reported that students were kicked off the bus, AC Transit said that it is against its policy to ask the children to leave the bus.
"We are not allowed to put people off the bus. We are supposed to call the sheriff," said Karen Teaster, superintendent of AC Transit's East Oakland Division.
But the fact that some children did disembark the bus is unsafe given the topography of the area. Montclair's narrow, winding streets have no sidewalks, forcing kids to walk side-by-side with vehicular traffic.
"The operator was concerned for the students' safety. Her ability to drive safely was impaired," said Christopher Beach, acting supervisor of AC Transit. "We emphasize that safety is our number-one importance.
"Boys are rambunctious and loud. There is a fine line that crosses over to being dangerous," Beach said.
On Tuesday, passengers said that the driver braked suddenly in response to the noise level on the bus. One child flew forward and hit a pole, causing her nose to bleed, the passengers said.
"We are aware of the incident and take the matter very seriously," said Clarence Johnson, an AC Transit spokesman. "Operators are bound by a certain code of conduct. If the driver's actions violate the code of conduct, they will be disciplined. That's about all we can do right now."
Under the California Education Code, schools are responsible for children to and from school, Tranzor said. "We can give a school consequence for what happens on the bus," she said. "We need to tell students what the expectations are and remind them often."
Larry Perea, chief of protective services for AC Transit, said that transit personnel see a variety of behaviors on buses ranging from throwing bottles and rocks, setting off fireworks, fights and even jumping out of the bus windows on various bus lines.
"Kids feed off each other's energy," Perea said. I think the arm of the school is a good threat.
"We tried monitors a few years ago, but it didn't work. The kids knew they didn't have teeth," Perea said.
"This is a public bus service, not a yellow school bus," Teaster said. "We pick up other people along the route."
Drivers sign up for routes based on their seniority as stipulated by their union contract, Teaster said. School routes are seen as less desirable by many, but not all, drivers. The current system makes it impossible to choose drivers based on their ability to deal with the types of behavior often seen on school routes.
"These problems aren't new. This is a good first step," said Lt. Joseph Hoeber, of the Alameda County Sheriff's Office, AC Transit police services.
"We realize that we have got to start somewhere," Perea said.