TAMPA — It's a strict rule for Hillsborough school bus drivers: Don't drop a kindergarten student off without an adult or older sibling to walk him home.
Yet six times in recent weeks, drivers have been accused of doing just that.
The incidents happened at Symmes, Shaw, Kimbell, Deer Park, Potter and Hunter's Green elementary schools.
In all but one case, the drivers were given one-day suspensions without pay.
The sixth case was dropped when the driver produced evidence that there was an adult responsible for the child.
The surge in cases — only two other such cases have come before the Hillsborough County School Board in the last six months — has one board member wondering if the drivers have been properly instructed.
"There isn't a consistent mechanism of training the employees," Susan Valdes said as the board prepared to vote on the last three suspensions.
"Because of the fact that we are in dire need of school bus drivers," she said, along with drivers taking double and triple runs, and students sometimes sitting four to a seat, "I can't in full conscience vote for this recommendation."
Valdes wound up voting with the rest of the board to suspend the three drivers, but only after a long discussion about the sometimes confusing work rules.
For example: Drivers have been told they cannot use cellphones, personal music devices and other electronic gadgets that might take their attention off the road.
"Yet we have a radio that's push-to-talk," she said.
District officials said bus drivers should know that the district-issued radios are permitted as the preferred method of emergency communication.
The procedure for kindergarten students is described in detail in a driver manual that was updated this year.
Kindergarten students wear special tags. They sit in the front of the bus. They can leave the bus with an older sibling. If there is no sibling, a designated adult must meet them at the bus stop. If that doesn't happen, the driver is supposed to return the child to school. If it happens too many times, the child can be suspended from the bus.
Superintendent MaryEllen Elia said the issue is simple: It isn't safe to allow a 5-year-old to walk home alone, and infractions cannot be overlooked.
But while elementary school drivers can be expected to understand the system, some board members wondered if confusion is resulting from high school drivers covering elementary vacancies.
Dan Valdez, the deputy superintendent over human resources, said a meeting is scheduled with the bus drivers' union, and one topic of discussion will be making sure drivers understand the rules.
Separately, the board voted unanimously to consider an elementary school security plan at its Dec. 10 meeting.
"I just want to see this put to rest in December," said Stacy White, who moved on Tuesday to put the matter on a board meeting agenda before the end of this year.
District administrators have been meeting one-on-one with board members to answer their questions about a plan to build gradually toward having an armed guard at every elementary school. Eventually the system will cost an additional $4.5 million a year, and some board members had questions about the source of the funding.
Others worry that relationships with parents will suffer if principals turn to the officers to settle disputes, or that not enough is being done to take care of children's psychological needs.
Chairwoman April Griffin, who was at the forefront of the push for increased social services, said she is pleased with the information she has received on those positions and is moving closer toward approving the armed security plan.
Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected]