Recent attacks involving schoolchildren in Cincinnati’s Downtown have local leaders and community members alike scrutinizing Cincinnati Public Schools’ transportation plan, again.
The district hasn’t caught a break on the transportation front ever since Metro stopped providing specialized school routes in 2021. The current protocol leaves kids across the city to wait around for bus transfers after school each day. “At dismissal you have thousands of teenagers being released onto the community and the streets,” said Eve Bolton, president of Cincinnati’s board of education.
More than three in four student riders don’t need to transfer buses at all, according to Metro, and no student has more than one transfer. As far as Downtown is concerned, Metro says there are about 200 kids who transfer buses at Government Square in the afternoons. That’s just 2% of the 9,000 students with Metro passes now, but more than a 50% increase from the number of kids at that stop when the designated school routes operated back in 2020.
Bolton said for years that safety “would ultimately become the problem” if the district switched to public transit. But she said what’s happening now − large groups of students violently beating each other in broad daylight on busy Downtown streets − is exacerbated by the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic that led to mental health issues and behavioral problems in kids all over Ohio and the country.
“Our kids are in a different place than they were pre-COVID, very frankly,” Bolton told The Enquirer.
The district, the city and the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority are working to find long-term solutions that will keep students safe as they make their way to and from school.
So far, they haven’t been able to figure it out.
And impending budget cuts mean the district may have fewer dollars to work with on a new or revised transportation plan for next school year.
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Will Xtra routes ever return?
Downtown isn’t the only place with safety issues. Last spring, two Woodward students were shot while waiting at a bus stop after school.
Nonviolent but disruptive incidents have been reported all over, Bolton said, in residential neighborhoods and business districts where dozens of kids hang around after school gets out, waiting for their bus.
“It’s just not a good plan,” Bolton said. “It never was a good plan.”
Before the switch to public transit in 2021, students in Cincinnati used special “Xtra” routes. For decades those routes transported students only, right up to their school doors.
Not all students used Xtra routes, though. Metro officials said thousands of students − 40% of the district’s student riders − rode regular service routes to school each day before the school routes were eliminated.
But the pandemic-induced bus driver shortage wiped out the school routes. Now, Metro provides passes for students in grades 9-12 to take regular public transit to and from school, sometimes with transfers at stops including Government Square. Students in grades 7-8 can also request a Metro pass instead of taking a yellow bus.
This applies to non-district students, too. Kids living inside city limits who attend private and charter schools use Metro buses, per the CPS transportation plan.
Since 2021, Metro said it’s made “significant service improvements” that provide students with more trip options, more frequent trips, shorter travel times, services for more schools and fewer bus transfers. Last year Metro added two new crosstown routes and made other adjustments to reduce the number of student transfers at Government Square by 30%.
“All improvements that would not be possible if Xtra service was still in place,” said Brandy Jones, Metro’s senior vice president of external affairs.
Bolton and Julie Sellers, president of the teacher’s union, have been vocal supporters of bringing back Metro’s Xtra routes, though that doesn’t look like an option. Metro did not directly answer questions about the possibility of bringing back Xtra routes as of Friday.
Possible changes to CPS transportation next year
During a school board meeting last week, CPS Superintendent Iranetta Wright mentioned the possibility of having students in grades 7-8 ride the Metro next year to save costs. She said administrators have mixed feelings about that plan, “for obvious reasons.”
Bolton told The Enquirer that’s not likely to happen, though the board hasn’t voted yet. Board members didn’t comment much about this cost-saving measure at the meeting.
Other transportation changes are on the table, too, such as increasing the walk radius from 1 mile to 1.5 miles, making the district responsible for transporting less students across the city. The school board will continue to discuss possible budget cuts with Wright and other administrators over the coming months.
“At this time, the Cincinnati Public Schools Board of Education and Superintendent have not made any recommendations or have plans to only offer Metro services to students in grades seven and eight or change its transportation protocols and procedures,” the district provided in a statement Friday afternoon.
Who is responsible for kids on their way to and from school?
School administrators can discipline students who misbehave on buses, whether they be yellow or Metro, according to the district’s recently revamped code of conduct. But because school staff don’t supervise students while they are waiting for Metro buses or while they’re riding, incidents are difficult to track.
If a Metro driver, community member or student reports an incident, it is the school’s responsibility to follow up. The district might remove a kid who misbehaves from their bus, cancel the student’s Metro pass or even suspend or expel the student, depending on the offense.
While the district is responsible for kids as they are transported to and from school, the district said in a statement that parents, caregivers and students also must take ownership “to arrive on time, behave safely and not engage in any activity that puts themselves or others in danger at any bus stop.”
The city stepped up by increasing safety patrols around bus transfer areas around dismissal times, as a short-term solution. But a sentiment that’s been voiced by several city leaders, including Mayor Aftab Pureval and activist Iris Roley, is that it will take more organized efforts from folks across the city to make real change.
“It’s all of us. It’s Metro, it’s CPS. It’s the city,” Bolton said. “It’s everyone.”