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Kenyon: Busting the Bus Driver

It’s bad enough when a hard-working, longtime employee gets thrown under the bus by his bosses. It’s even worse when the guy getting tossed is the bus driver himself.

Chris Reed, 51, has been a school bus driver for nearly 20 years, the last dozen or so in Lebanon. On Oct. 24, Reed was behind the wheel when the Lebanon High School field hockey team headed out on a two-hour drive to Exeter for the state semifinals.

After getting onto Interstate 89 south, one of the girls took out her smart phone to shoot a video of her teammates performing a Taylor Swift song. For the next few minutes, according to parents who have seen the video, some of the girls bounced and turned in their seats. Nobody was dancing in the aisles or, from what I was told, doing handstands or anything that could even be called horseplay.

“I was glancing in the (rearview) mirror and I didn’t think they were doing anything unsafe,” Reed told me. “They were just getting pumped up for the game.”

Three Lebanon High coaches seated at the front of the bus apparently didn’t find the teens’ behavior hazardous, either.

It wasn’t until a couple of days after the team’s win over Bow High School that the sing-along became a big deal. When the girls posted the video on YouTube, it came to the attention of Jim Fenn, the school district’s business administrator, and Wanda Hastings, the transportation coordinator. (School administrators ordered the girls to take the video off YouTube. So much for free speech, but I’ll leave the topic of censorship for another day.)

Reed was called into Hastings’ office to watch the video. He was informed that the school district was taking disciplinary action. For the remainder of the fall and the entire winter, Reed said, he won’t be allowed to drive on any athletic or field trips. (He keeps his regular morning and afternoon routes.)

Reed, who lives with his father in Enfield, expects to lose $2,000 in pay to the suspension.

What did Reed do that was — at least in the eyes of Lebanon school administrators — so wrong?

The Lebanon High student handbook states that “students must wear their seat belts at all times” on school buses. The district is “trying to promote good, safe habits,” said Fenn. “It’s a lifestyle. If you have to be seat-belted in your parents’ car, why should school buses be any different? If students aren’t properly seated, their behavior isn’t safe.”

It sounds good. But let’s get real.

Lebanon has had a mandatory seat-belt policy for nearly 20 years. How often do you suppose the coaches and players wear their seat belts? I’m guessing compliance is not universal.

School officials can hand down an edict, but I wonder if they gave much thought to how their policy was going to be enforced. Is the driver supposed to stop the bus every 15 minutes to make sure that all 25 teenage passengers remain buckled up? I also wonder whether other adults on the bus share the responsibility of checking whether kids are obeying the rule.

Rather than thinking about whether the policy was realistic, Lebanon administrators took the easy path. They made Reed their fall guy. “It’s the school bus driver’s responsibility,” said Fenn.

After hearing about Reed’s suspension through the Lebanon grapevine, I gave him a call. At first, he was reluctant to talk about what had happened. “I don’t want to lose my job,” he said.

In the end, though, he decided to tell his story because “it seems like I’m being made the scapegoat.”

Folks whom I’ve talked with around Lebanon tend to agree. Parents called him a model driver. “If Chris thought they were doing anything dangerous, I’m sure he would have stopped it,” said Patti Friedman, one of the players’ parents who has viewed the video.

I checked with First Student, the private bus company that provides transportation services for five Upper Valley school districts. (Lebanon isn’t one of them.) None of the schools, including Hanover, requires high school buses to be equipped with seat belts, said Mike Gaudette, a First Student manager.

Whether seat belts should be mandatory in large buses is up for debate. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which establishes federal motor vehicle safety standards, isn’t pushing it. “School buses are one of the safest forms of transportation in the United States,” according to the NHTSA’s website. “Large school buses are heavier and distribute crash forces differently than do passenger cars and light trucks.”

The agency concluded that school districts would be better off focusing their bus safety efforts on other things. Children are at “greater risk of being killed in school bus loading zones (i.e. boarding and leaving the bus) than in the bus,” states the NHTSA.

Lebanon School Board Chairman Hank Tenney heard about the field hockey bus incident last week. He’s asked school administrators to explain their actions at the board’s meeting on Wednesday. Because it’s considered a personnel matter, the discussion will be held behind closed doors.

Field hockey players and parents feel bad that Reed has taken the blame. To ease the financial hit, they have talked about giving him a gift certificate for groceries.

I’m told they had to stop, though. As a school employee, Reed can’t accept big gifts. It’s against school district policy.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at Jim.Kenyon@valley.net.