25 Investigates: School bus violence is not unusual, but learning about incidents can be difficult

The school bus, once considered safe, is increasingly becoming a violent place.

25 Investigates found assaults on school buses are not unusual, but information about them is hard to come by.

Anchor and investigative reporter Kerry Kavanaugh spoke to a mother who says her autistic 6-year-old was attacked on the school bus on her way home.

“My mother gets my daughter off the bus. So my mother gets on the bus and says she finds my daughter sitting down with her pants down,” said Eugenia Boger of Boston.

According to Boger, that incident occurred on September 29th of last year. Her daughter Layla, who is non-verbal, is a K-2 student at Boston Public Schools (BPS).

“She has a disability. She’s on the autism spectrum. She can’t communicate,” she said, adding that for that reason this alleged bus incident is all the more troubling to her.

Boger said she had many questions for the school district but didn’t get many answers.

“How long were my daughter’s pants down? Did you guys let her walk on the bus and sit with her pants down,?” she wondered.

About a week later, Boger says, she got another upsetting call from her mother about Layla.

“On October 8th, my mother calls me at work and she’s like, ‘You’re gonna be mad.’ She’s like, ‘Your daughter has scratches all over her face,” she recalls.

Boger provided 25 Investigates a one-page incident report in which a bus driver noted that Layla had “a scratch on her face” from another student.  The document was redacted to exclude the name of the student attacker. The Boston mom also shared several photos showing Layla’s bruised and scratched face. She says the photos were taken that same night.

“She had more than a scratch. She had a bruise on her face,” said the upset mother.

But Boger says information about that second incident on the bus wasn’t easy to come by either.

“I feel like they weren’t taking me seriously at all.”

25 Investigates wanted to know how often incidents of violence or aggression occur on school buses. We found that information isn’t readily available or, for that matter, tracked.

In addition to Boston, our team requested data from eight randomly chosen school districts – Worcester, Waltham, Malden, Braintree, Lawrence, Salem, Plymouth and Fitchburg. We asked the districts if they tracked violence on their public school buses. Of those eight districts, only Waltham, Salem, Lawrence and Fitchburg responded. Only Fitchburg said it collected his data.

Boston, meanwhile, reported 86 school bus assaults during the 2018-2019 school year. In 2019-2020, BPS saw 58 assaults. That number, however, reflects only part of the school year since classes went remote in March due to pandemic lockdowns. The following year (2020-2021), BPS reported less than 10 assaults. It’s worth noting that year was largely remote until April of 2021. The district said it didn’t have data for the current school year yet.

Boston 25 News has reported on some recent incidents of violence on board school buses.

In October, a cell phone video showed an 8-year-old Dorchester boy being attacked by another student on the bus, leaving him slumped over.

Earlier this month, a bus driver told Boston 25 News he was assaulted by students when he asked them to stop smoking pot. That bus driver was left with a bloody nose.

“Two incidents happened with my daughter and there’s nothing to show,” said Boger.

She claims she asked to see bus surveillance video of both incidents but none was available for either incident. She says also says there is no written report of when her daughter’s pants were down.

Kathleen Byrne, a Massachusetts juvenile court attorney, says information about what’s happening on school buses should be readily available to parents, especially when it comes to students who, like Layla, can’t speak for themselves. She is not affiliated with the Layla’s case.

“As soon as [the mother] brings a complaint to the school, the school should be trying to address it, immediately giving her the information that she’s looking for. If they don’t have it, they need to say we don’t have it, and then work to get it,” said Byrne.

She believes districts should make detailed information such as “the breakdown of schools, where it happens, if it’s a student or if it’s a bus driver or monitor” available to parents and the public.

25 Investigates checked with the state Department of Secondary and Elementary Education (DESE). The agency said it maintains data on students who are disciplined for physical attacks of fighting.

But the data doesn’t specify the location or if the incident occurred on a school bus.

That, says DESE, is up to individual districts. But, as already established, many of the districts we contacted did not track this data either.

Frustrated with the lack of answers, Eugenia Boger, Layla’s mother, said she’s not taking any more chances. She transferred her daughter to a new school, one where she can drive her daughter herself.

“I do not feel that my daughter’s safe on the bus. I don’t feel like this should happen,” she said.

We asked Boston Public Schools about Layla’s incidents and about her mother’s concerns. BPS spokesperson Sharra Gaston told us:

“Every day, Boston Public Schools (BPS) and our dedicated bus drivers transport more than 22,000 students on over 600 buses, servicing about 230 schools on over 2,900 different routes to our schools, as well as private, parochial, and charter schools outside of BPS. The health, safety, and wellbeing of our students and staff remains of the highest importance. BPS considers the school bus an extension of the classroom and we immediately review any allegations of incidents or challenges on our buses with our Transportation, Office of Equity, and Student Support teams. This can include reviewing video footage, gathering incident reports from monitors and bus drivers, and interviewing other students on the bus, and then working with our school leaders to address issues and support students. We do not comment on specific incidents to protect the identities of our students, but the district is committed to working directly with affected families to resolve any issues as they arise.”