Education

Video from Bluffton teen shows students sitting in aisles of overcrowded high school bus

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Video taken on a May River High School bus Wednesday afternoon shows a chaotic scene: Students are stacked three to a seat, some spilling into the center of the bus and sitting on each other as they ride home.

“People are sitting in the f------ aisle,” one student says, overlapping with another voice near the back of the bus: “I’m first stop, what am I going to do?”

May River is one of at least three district schools, all in Bluffton, that experienced overcrowding on bus routes during the first week back, which started Aug. 19, according to the Beaufort County School District.

District chief operations officer Robert Oetting, who oversees the transportation department, said Friday afternoon he did not know how many routes or how many students have been affected by the overcrowding in the county, but confirmed that H.E. McCracken Middle School and River Ridge Academy also reported problems with packed buses.

Parents of McCracken students expressed concern Monday about the safety of their children in a Facebook post.

“Cypress Ridge bus was so overcrowded,” Laura Elmore Floyd said in the post. “Kids literally sitting in the aisle on the floor. Please direct us to who we can contact. Elementary buses just as awful. It’s not safe.”

Oetting acknowledged potential safety issues Friday.

“We do not want to have students in the aisle,” he said.

The state Department of Education gives school districts 20 days to correct course on overcrowded buses.

Oetting said Friday he did not know whether the district faced punishment if the issue wasn’t fixed within 20 days, but said the district had no intention of letting the problem persist that long.

According to the state’s code of laws governing public school buses, violations of school bus safety policy can result in misdemeanor charges and jail time, including a fine of up to $100.

Oetting said he hoped to have the problem fixed by Monday and noted there “were no substantial complaints at all” Friday.

The district has a “pretty good handle” on the situation, he said.

He didn’t know the number of complaints that the district’s transportation department had received from parents during the first week of school, but characterized them as “numerous.” He said district transportation supervisors were taking parent calls as late as 7:30 p.m. Monday.

Oetting attributed the bus overcrowding to what he said was a surge in population over the past few months and said this is typical for the first week of school.

“The problem is growth in Bluffton,” he said.

Bus routes are created in the summer and are based on school enrollment numbers from the spring, he said.

Some years, especially in fast-growing neighborhoods such as Mystic Bluff, Lawton Station, New Riverside and Mill Creek, more students show up than anticipated on the first day of school, Oetting said.

Although the district maintains data on projected growth in each school year over year, those numbers were not used to build the bus routes, he said Friday.

When asked how many more students were on the school buses than the district expected this week, Oetting said he did not know yet.

To fix the problem, the district has added additional routes and buses “so that every kid can be in a seat.”

Some drivers might have to run two back-to-back routes, which can create delays for students or change pick-up and drop-off times because buses have to start their routes earlier and complete them later to compensate.

One McCracken parent complained about this Monday on Facebook, saying her child’s bus came earlier than expected.

“It changed to Palmetto Pointe from 7:57 am to 7:30 and no 1 said anything,” Limarie Reyes wrote. “I just had to take early lunch to pick him up at home, he was late today.”

“When we are aware of the change, we post the update on the Remind Bus updates that we sent out yesterday above,” the school page replied.

According to a recent press release from district spokesman Jim Foster, 12,000 of the district’s 22,000 students rode school buses last year. The district has a 181-bus fleet, two-thirds of which are owned by the S.C. Department of Education.

Some of those buses are more than 30 years old, though the district is expecting 18 propane-fueled buses from the state in March; the district’s 1988 buses will only be used as substitute vehicles and taken off the road for everyday use after the new models arrive.

May River High and River Ridge Academy were at or above 97 percent capacity as of February, leading to larger classes, temporary trailer structures on campus and a lack of permanent spaces for teachers.

Both schools are slated for a combined $26 million of building additions if voters approve November’s $345 million school bond referendum.

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Rachel Jones covers education for the Island Packet and the Beaufort Gazette. She attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and has worked for the Daily Tar Heel and Charlotte Observer. Rachel grew up in Ayden, NC, surrounded by teachers.
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