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Driving Forces

New Jersey bus drivers learn counter-terrorism techniques.

By John Rosales

Kathy Reilly participated in a simulation of a bus hijacking as part of a training exercise in counter-terrorism. "If I don't know you, you're not getting on my bus," she says.

The irate father forced his way onto Kathy Reilly's packed school bus, intending to kidnap the daughter he had just lost in a bitter custody battle. He was in a rage, screaming and pounding the dashboard and windows with his fists.

He told Reilly he had a knife under his coat and would stab her if she did not follow his demands.

"I believed him," Reilly says. "He was in my face."

Fortunately, he did not really have a knife. And he wasn't really a crazed dad. He was a police officer playing a role to teach Reilly and 115 other bus drivers and school officials with the New Jersey Gloucester Township Public School System how to handle violent attacks on the road.

"The key is to stay calm," Reilly says. "You're by yourself on the road with the kids, but you have a lot of support on the other end of the radio."

The one-day class held last January was part of a training exercise to create stronger school security policies and practices in New Jersey.

After seeing an extensive training exercise in school safety at the 2006 New Jersey Education Association's (NJEA) annual conference, George Bittner, Gloucester's supervisor of transportation services, and bus driver Bonnie Chalfant, president of Gloucester Township Support Professionals, started discussing ways to train Gloucester drivers in counter-terrorism and school bus takeovers.

"Buses are soft targets," says Bittner. "The training opened everyone's eyes to how vulnerable buses are, but also to what we can do to prevent bad situations."

Eventually, NJEA, New Jersey's Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness (OHSP), and local law enforcement agencies were invited to develop a workshop for bus drivers.

Bittner says a strong working relationship between school boards, local police and fire departments, and the OHSP is vital to school as well as bus safety. He adds that it was his own working relationship with the Gloucester police chief that led to 14 SWAT team officers attending the training. They answered questions and demonstrated emergency response techniques.

Bittner worked with OHSP personnel on the indoor classroom presentation outlining security measures on the bus, at bus stops, and in the storage yard.

"We love to have parents at the bus stops watching the kids," Bittner says. "But they are not allowed on board. It's illegal. As soon as a driver sees a trespasser's foot on the bus, we want them to know how to react quickly and appropriately." 

Chalfant worked with Police Sergeant Jason Gittens in securing four buses and planning the take-over scenarios. For the role-play, four participants were chosen from the group to drive four buses. The rest of the participants sat on the buses portraying students.

In her eight years as a bus driver, Reilly has encountered her share of confrontational adults. They have cursed at her in front of students, cut her off in traffic, and shown her their middle finger.

But the training tackled more than just rude adults. Reilly, who drives a 36-foot bus, often at capacity (54 passengers), also learned that someone who might target a bus may start by monitoring her bus route and seeking information about her job.

"They might ask questions about where we park our buses," she says.

To trick drivers into talking, instructors said terrorist planners might impersonate an officer using illegal law enforcement or military uniforms. 

In 2006, New Jersey established the School Security Task Force to deal with such situations as bomb threats, shooters on campus, lockdowns, evacuations, and the takeover of a school bus.

"A terrorist could be anyone," Reilly says. "If you have any problems on the road, with the right system in place, you call base. Help will be on the way in minutes."

Training aside, Reilly has one Golden Rule regarding bus safety that she has stood by since her first day on the job.

"If I don't know you, you're not getting on my bus," she says.

Photo: Patrick Rumaker

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