Editorials represent the institutional view of the newspaper. They are written and edited by the editorial staff, which operates separately from the news department. Editorial writers are not involved in newsroom operations.

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Editorial: Why SC needs to keep better records on school bus violence

School Buses

It's virtually impossible for most parents to get a sense of how safe it is aboard their child's school bus since there's no standardized approach to keeping records of incidents. Brad Nettles/Staff

Experts note that school buses pose a unique and challenging problem for ensuring children’s safety because there’s usually only one adult on board, and he or she needs to pay attention to the road. Compounding the challenge is South Carolina’s inconsistent and often ineffective approach of tracking  disciplinary incidents on the way to school and back.

There has to be a better way.

Let’s be clear on these points: We are not in favor of piling more burdensome regulations on public schools, and we recognize drivers — who perform a low-paying, underappreciated job — need to keep their eyes on the road rather than referee what’s going on in the back seats.

But we are concerned about the hodgepodge, largely ineffective approach the state’s school districts take when it comes to monitoring this important element of student safety.

As Jenna Schiferl reported Monday, the state lacks an accessible, comprehensive database that records incidents on school buses. While school districts are required to report behavioral incidents, many don’t track whether such incidents occur inside school or on the ride there.

For instance, Charleston County tracks such incidents on buses, but Horry, Greenville and Richland County School District One don’t. That shouldn’t be a big deal to change, since school districts already have an online system for reporting behavioral, academic and other data. Bus drivers already report fights to the administration: The problem appears to stem from districts that don’t bother to enter the location where incidents occur.

And the problem is real. Charleston County reported 980 behavioral incidents on buses during the 2018-19 school year, 37% of them fights. The worst incidents have led to hospitalization and arrests.

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While anecdotes abound, it’s vital for school districts to have good numbers to have a sense of how big the problem is. S.C. Department of Education spokesman Ryan Brown said the state has added additional training to encourage district officials to fill in the gaps, such as the location of fights, but told Ms. Schiferl, “It’s kind of hit or miss whether or not we actually receive them.”

“In a perfect world, we’d find out news involving our school buses from that reporting mechanism, but again, that’s only in a perfect world,” Mr. Brown added. “I’d say that probably happens 25% of the time.”

That’s too low, and we can and should do better.

Jennifer Coker, the Charleston County School District’s executive director of alternative programs and services, said such specific data can help assess and respond to persistent problems and threats.

“If we don’t know where the fights are occurring, it’s very hard to create a plan to help decrease that or change behavior,” Ms. Coker told Ms. Schiferl. “If we don’t have a way to look at it by location, we can’t respond.”

South Carolina has expended and is continuing to expend a lot of effort searching for ways to reform its educational system and ensure that every child emerges with the best possible preparation for college or a meaningful career. That’s as it should be. But if we can’t keep children safe — not only in schools but also on buses — we’re not going to be able to educate them. Fortunately, it seems with some very minor, workable tweaks, all of the state’s school districts could get a better handle on doing just that.

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