Blame or accountability: a challenge for society

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Guest column by Jim Yancey

By Jim Yancey
Every school day, more than 99 percent of our 42,000 students make great decisions and do what we expect them to – study, do their homework, participate in learning, and earn a good education. And most of the 23,000 students on our buses do the same. Unfortunately, we don’t hear about these students because they don’t generate many news headlines.
The ones that do garner news coverage, at least since Jan. 6, fall in the minute portion, less than one half of one percent out of 42,000 students. Of course I’m talking about seven students arrested for beating a fellow student on the bus.
By now, our district has made headlines in nearly every newsroom around the country. We’ve helped private media companies increase their ratings and sell more newspapers. Six weeks after the incident, we continue dealing with interview requests “for our viewers” and questions “for our readers.”
Most media and many people are most interested in pointing fingers and blaming someone, and justifiably to a degree.
Bus drivers have one of the toughest jobs around. They pick up students in the morning when they don’t want to go to school and they take them home when they’re rambunctious and full of energy. We expect our drivers to drive safely, efficiently, and in a timely manner. With few exceptions, they do. They shouldn’t have to be distracted with bad bus behavior from any student.
In Marion County, 275 buses hit the road every school day pulling double duty. They run multiple routes every morning and afternoon, picking up and dropping off elementary students. Then they turn around and repeat the process with middle and high school students.
Some people believe the answer to this incident is buying more buses and hiring more bus aides. In a perfect world, that would be wonderful. However, Marion County is larger than the state of Rhode Island – over 1,650 square miles. We simply don’t have the money to buy that amount of buses. We cannot afford it. We have 130 bus aides, 116 who are dedicated exclusively to serving the needs of special needs students. The remaining 14 aides and a handful of other transportation employees are available to ride problematic routes and fill in as needed.
While most people focus on the bus fight thanks to the state attorney’s office releasing the video, we’re focusing on equipping our bus drivers with even more skills to resolve student conflicts. We’re involving more people in the student discipline process. We’re training, teaching, and turning to better communication, hoping something like this will never happen again.
While we continue the process, our community – and society as a whole – must also come to grips with a basic principle that’s been lost in this entire experience – holding children accountable for their actions. Teenagers know right from wrong, good from bad, and befriending over bullying. Holding students accountable for their choices teaches them consequences, responsibility, and character.
Our district and School Board will hold students accountable. Will we as a society?
Jim Yancey is superintendent of schools for Marion County.