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Area school officials: Buses not overcrowded, extremely safe
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The standard length of a school bus seat is 39 inches — that’s 13 inches per student, mind you.

“They’re designed for three to a seat, but middle and high school kids are sometimes bigger,” Hall County Schools Executive Director of Operations Jewel Armour said. “That doesn’t always work to have three to a seat, so that’s another issue we look at.”

A school bus is one of the safest modes of transportation a person can be on, especially during school hours. 

Information from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration shows 58 percent of student fatalities during school hours were from traveling with a teen driver, while 23 percent were from traveling with an adult driver.

Only 1 percent of fatalities came from traveling by school bus.

“They’re incredibly safe even if you pack 100 kids, which we don’t, on a 72-passenger bus and you slammed it into a car,” Hall Superintendent Will Schofield said. “It’s still a pretty darn safe place to be.

“We wouldn’t do something that we didn’t think was safe,” he said.

But there are instances where a bus may appear to be crowded, and one of those instances came in the form of a photo sent to The Times via Twitter. The image shows students allegedly blocking the middle aisle of a Hall County school bus. Some appear as though they are clinging to a seat.

“It is crowded,” Armour said, after looking at the picture. “But there’s three to a seat, and some of the seats have two to a seat. ... I see several seats that only have two to a seat.”

There was also the thought that maybe it’s just kids being kids.

“It looks to me like the kids know the picture is being taken,” Armour said.

According to parent Patricia Clark, the bus in question was transporting Flowery Branch High School and C.W. Davis Middle School students.

“My children and the neighbor’s child have all stated that the bus has too many students on it,” she said via email. 

Armour sent a different bus to ride the route when shown the photo, and Clark has since confirmed a different bus was transporting her children.

“We had 62 total students on the bus,” he said March 19 after switching out the buses, clarifying there was more than enough room. 

“There were some seats with two students and some with three students. There were empty seats in the back of the bus.”

Both Armour and Schofield said the picture in question does not show overcrowding, but improper seating procedures.

“All I did was count heads and the number of seats,” Schofield said about the picture. “The bus driver should have pulled over and said, ‘Get your fannies in those seats.’”

The space allotted per child also includes any extra baggage students carry, like a backpack, purse, musical instrument, gym bag or athletic equipment. Armour said students can’t carry anything on board that they can’t fit on their lap or between their legs.

And, both men said it’s rare to have three to a seat for either middle or high school students.

When Facebook fans of The Times were asked about overcrowded buses, many chimed in with their own experiences. One parent said it’s not an issue at all.

“I have had my three children attending Flowery Branch schools for the past eight years,” Jessica Powell wrote. 

“Their buses have never sat three in a row on any typical school day. I asked my high school daughter about bus capacity issues she may have encountered. She said only once this school year did they have a few children sitting three in a row. It was when a bus broke down. Her bus absorbed those students to get them home.”

But other parents said they did think buses are too crowded. Heather Merritt Chapman wrote about her experience chaperoning a recent field trip:

“There were 70 students and four adults riding on one bus,” she wrote. “There were kids falling off the seats because there wasn’t enough room for them to sit three-to-a-seat. I was amazed.”

Armour said those situations are rectified quickly when he’s alerted to a problem.

“We don’t like kids standing. We don’t like kids sitting on the floor,” he said. “We don’t allow them to do that.”

It’s the same procedure for Gainesville City Schools.

“We don’t have anybody standing on a bus,” Transportation Director Jerry Castleberry said, adding elementary students usually sit three to a seat, while middle and high school students are either seated by twos or threes, depending on size and space availability. “Nobody stands. Nobody sits on the floor.”

But school officials said it is difficult to plan for how many middle and high school students will ride the bus on any given day. High school students in particular will ride with friends, drive themselves or attend after-school activities on various days of the week. A crowded bus one day could be nearly empty the next.

And both state and federal regulations allow crowded buses — to a certain extent.

“They are allowed up to 120 percent of the manufacturer’s rated seating capacity of the bus,” Georgia Department of Education spokesman Matt Cardoza said, adding that’s not the ideal situation.

“This is not an endorsement of having standees,” states guidance provided to school districts by the state at the beginning of every school year. 

“In fact, we need to emphasize that this rule should never be your alibi and if standees result due to an unexpected overload you must make resolution a top priority and quickly identify and implement a solution that will get every student sitting in a seat as soon as possible (days — not weeks).”

Armour and Castleberry said they work quickly to address any issues of buses being over seating capacity.

Armour called the picture in question “safe, but not ideal.” In the event of a wreck, the students would be protected, he said.

“I would venture to say in this case, if you have a wreck these kids would be fine because, again, they’re padded all the way around,” he said. “But if they were standing, I disagree with that totally. We definitely don’t want a kid standing.”

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