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Articles of Interest by Jay B. Itkowitz During his Journalism Career

TA drivers decry students' behavior on buses

Long Island Press, January 28, 1973

Early one recent morning New York City Transit Authority bus driver John Slensky pulled up at 169th Street and Jamaica Avenue, a block away from the 103rd Precinct, to pick up students who were on their way to Bayside High School.

Slensky opened the doors and, "before you could blink your eyes," he recalled, "the 60 kids piled onto the bus without paying." He called the dispatcher on his two-way radio (all buses are equipped with them) for instructions, and was told to "let it go."

Three adults got on at the same time, Slensky recalled, but got off a few stops later to take a different bus because the students were pushing and kicking them.

The incident illustrates what nearly a score of bus drivers interviewed by The Press describe as a general breakdown of order on public buses in Queens caused by thousands of junior and senior high school students who commute to their schools.

This breakdown was illustrated anew last Monday when three teenage girls were arrested and two policemen were injured during a brawl on a Queens Boulevard bus. On Tuesday, several city bus drivers refused to stop on Jamaica Avenue for an unruly crowd of junior high school students.

School and Transit Authority officials are aware of the increasing problem of disruptive and sometimes violent students who ride public buses. Most blame it on the problem of society and plead helplessness to do anything but watch.

As one official put it: "The problem is not that students rampage through schools, or stores, or neighborhoods or buses, it is that they rampage. It's the number one problem today."

Interviews with dozens of affected persons would seem to indicate that the problem encompasses much more than students simply letting off steam in such traditional ways as cursing, spitting and smoking on public buses.

Students releasing their aggressions, a survey by The Press indicates, are likely to pelt buses with rocks, fight with each other, harass and sometimes steal from other students as well as adult passenger who pay full fares. The Press also has received complaint from nearly 20 storeowners who say they have at times been forced to lock their doors at peak hours because of disruptive students.

Fear of violence is increasing on bus lines in Queens to the extent that an undetermined number of students and adults walk instead of risking a ride.

How bad is bad? That depends on who is doing the talking.

TA officials, for instance, while admitting that violence is increasing, say they are coping with the problem. Bus drivers, however, say TA officials are "sweeping the problem under the rug." More than a few fear the students they transport.

When students leave school for the day they cease to be the responsibility of school authorities, who don't keep records of incidents aboard buses involving students.

The only agency that does keep records on "incidents"- anything from missiles thrown at buses to assaults on board- is the TA.

TA spokesman Louis Collins says that during 1971 bus drivers reported a total of 270 incidents aboard Queens buses, according to statistics from two Queens depots- Jamaica and Flushing- which daily send out 550 buses and make 11,000 trips a day. From January to November 1972, Collins said, the number of incidents has risen to 343.

Collins reported that during all of 1971 there were five assaults resulting from clashes between passengers and/or motorists and bus drivers. For the January-November 1972 period, he said, six were reported.

The numbers would seem to indicate that there is not much of a problem. But then, there are statistics and there are statistics.

TA records copied by union officials allege that during 1972 there were at least 17 assaults on passengers and bus drivers by persons of school age. These records, which date from January to November 1972 for the Jamaica depot and from January to May for the Flushing depot, show almost three times as many assaults as reported by the TA.

The actual number of incidents could be as much as 50 percent higher since many bus drivers don't report incidents "because no one will do anything," contends Frank Kleess, president of Division 1056 of the Amalgamated Transit Workers, which includes 1,800 bus drivers and maintenance workers, from the Flushing and Jamaica depots.

Jamaica shop steward Sam McMillan claims TA officials don't want accurate records - the only statistical measure of the problem. "If a driver comes in and says a student put a knife to him," he said, "as long as he wasn't hurt, they won't make out a report."

Senior General Superintendent for TA surface Operations and Planning Jack P. Belsky, while admitting violence is rising, believes it is being controlled. "Whenever we do have this kind of activity our police or city police move right in and care of it," says Belsky.

Asked if the TA ever considered assigning police to transit buses, Belsky said TA police were established primarily for subways. "Since city police are in the street," he said, "they are there to take appropriate action. Where we have frequent incidents, our police do come in, do undercover work, and make arrests."

Just how many cases are handled by TA detectives and how many arrests are made on surface lines is a secret. Belsky referred this reporter to another official, who was unable to provide the information.

Another spokesman for the TA flatly refused to provide the information. Officials did confide, however, that the situation is relatively calm in Queens when compared to sections of the Bronx and Brooklyn.

Many bus drivers are very critical of Board of Education policies which result in thousands of students leaving their own neighborhoods to attend schools elsewhere.

They say the one-or-two hours students spend on buses aggravates them and causes them to take out their resentments on the drivers and other passengers.

One hears this complaint from both white and black drivers who say the problem is not racial. And they complain of problems from students whether they be from Flushing High School, Bowne High School or Holy Cross High School.

Nevertheless, busing has stirred fears and resentments in white middle-class neighborhoods where black students from Southeast Queens are bused in.

On a major thoroughfare in Queens, two stores find it necessary to close their doors every morning when students emerge from the subway to wait for buses. The storeowners claim the move was necessitated by repeated shoplifting.

Sixteen storeowners in Flushing have appealed to Borough President Donald Manes to provide more police because of the disruptive students. They charge that disruptive black students from South Jamaica attending Flushing High School are forcing them to lock their doors at peak hours.

A storeowner in another area said that at times eight to ten students would walk in and two would buy while the rest stole things. The shopkeeper said police were alerted, but were told they could take no action unless the shoplifter was caught and held until police arrived.

Storeowners attributed the thefts to students being out of their own neighborhoods. "They feel less inhibited where nobody knows them," one said.

A number of black junior high school students who congregate around one of the stores denied the charges of stealing. "There might have been one or two incidents," said one, "But that's all. They're just afraid of blacks. It's discrimination."

All the students said they were glad to be attending school out of their neighborhood. "If I weren't going to Campbell Junior High School," said one, "I'd be going to Shimer Junior High School. No one learns anything there."

Some white students who live near Campbell said they were afraid of the black students. Some said they would rather walk than ride the buses.

But while some black students admit there's some "fooling around" on the buses, they say the white students' fears are unfounded.

Many blacks in Southeast Queens are aware of resentments caused by busing policies. And many have been clamoring for a redrawing of district lines which would result in a district controlled by blacks. Such a district, they say, would help resuscitate their overcrowded and understaffed schools and end the need for busing.

They also want a South Jamaica High School and an end to the "enclave" policy, which sends blacks to schools throughout Northern Queens.

Max Shapiro, a spokesman for the central board of education, thinks putting school para-professionals aboard buses would make sense.

"At what point does one draw the line though?" says Shapiro. "Just because someone is a student on a bus miles away, does that the mean the school has to supervise him? Doesn't the bus company and TA have authority over its passengers?"

Campbell Junior High School Principal George Krieger would like to see para-professionals riding school buses with more TA detectives available for "trouble spots."

"Para-professionals cannot make arrests, they cannot stop extortion," he said, "but their value lies in their ability to identify wrongdoers. The children know this and therefore they would act as deterrents."

Union officials say lack of enforcement is compounding a serious problem. They want more TA police available for surface duty.

"Once the students get away with something, they continue to do it and it gets worse," says Flushing shop steward Victor Iskowitz. "The situation won't get better until somebody takes a stand, until there is a little discipline."

TA Superintendent Belsky doubts whether para-professionals or more police are the answers. "To put para-professionals on buses where there is no record of incidents would be ridiculous. Where there are incidents, I don't know whether they would be professionally qualified to handle them."

"I hardly think it would be justified to put a cop on every bus for the frequency of incidents," he added. "It would cost $100 million a year."