Green Mountain Transit officials say a bus driver didn’t follow company protocol when he ejected students from his route last week, but his actions were not race-based.
Burlington School District officials met with the transit company Tuesday following Burlington mother Rebecca Mack’s viral Facebook post that claimed a bus driver forced only children of color to exit the bus for “singing and clapping.” Mack said the children, including two of her own, told her that white kids were allowed to remain seated.
The May 23 incident prompted the Burlington City Council to demand GMT attend its next meeting to explain what happened.
The footage shows bus No. 914 carrying a couple dozen children from Edmunds Elementary and Middle schools, the majority of them students of color. A group in the back begins chanting and banging on the windows soon after the bus departs shortly after 3 p.m. The driver, who identifies himself as Nate, tells them to stop.
About four minutes into the ride, the driver parks the bus, walks down the center aisle and says, “Everyone in the back — off” and then threatens to call the police if they don’t leave.
It’s chaotic and loud as the students protest, but they eventually go. The video shows students of all races among those ejected onto North Street. Some attempt to get back on. The driver is then seen attempting to reach GMT’s dispatch on his cell phone, marketing and public affairs manager Jamie Smith said.
The driver disconnects the call and returns to the front. One camera angle shows a white student who was kicked off the bus yell “faggot!” at the driver just before the bus pulls away. The students of all races give chase and follow the bus to its next stop, banging on the side walls. Children of color and white students remain on the bus.
GMT general manager Mark Sousa said the driver is on paid administrative leave while the company investigates. The driver has worked for GMT for several years and often picks up students on this same route, Sousa said.
"Looking at the video so many times, I can tell you that he did not follow several [protocols] and so we are going to look into that,” Sousa said. He declined to specify which rules the driver broke until the internal review is complete.
Erin Star Hughes
Burlington Superintendent Yaw Obeng watched the video Wednesday and agreed “this was not race-based at all,” Sousa said.
Later Wednesday, school district spokesperson Russ Elek released a statement about the incident.
"It would be unfair to conclude without a thorough investigation that the actions of the bus driver were based solely on racial bias," the statement says. "The bus driver did not follow GMT procedures for this type of scenario. And GMT reports that they have no procedures that would call for the removal of students off a bus."
Over the summer, GMT and the district will work on how to educate "students, parents, and drivers around safe and respectful behaviors and expectations," Elek's statement read.
Sousa acknowledged both sides have work to do: “Were there certain actions by the students that they're going to follow up on and look at? Absolutely. But on our end, we also have to follow up and look into our employees as well," he said.
Sousa said operators receive diversity training annually, and Vermont State Police has trained all GMT operators on de-escalating rowdy situations.
"Definitely the steps weren’t taken to de-escalate that situation," Sousa said. “It’s not like they don’t have the tools to handle situations like this.”
A handful of community members attended the Burlington School District's Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Committee meeting Tuesday night and demanded repercussions for the driver, implicit bias training for all bus operators and justice for the students involved.
One parent, Erin Star Hughes, who has a son of African descent, said GMT should no longer transport Burlington students. Hughes, who had not seen the onboard video, said children can’t be blamed for the driver’s actions.
"They're children at 3 p.m. They've just gotten out of school. They're not really misbehaving. They just have all this energy,” Hughes said. “When a white boy does it, he's just being a kid, but when a black kid does it, the cops get called."
Mack told the committee she watched a video that a student took on the bus before the kids were kicked off. She had not seen the full onboard bus footage.
"They may not have been following exactly the bus rules at that moment ... to that I cannot speak,” Mack said. “But what I can tell you for sure is that they were beautiful, playful children. That's what I saw."
GMT board president Tom Chittenden
GMT board president Tom Chittenden apologized and committed to discussing the event at the next board meeting on June 18.
"I would never want any kid thrown off any bus anywhere in Vermont,” Chittenden said. “This is our top priority.”
Smith at GMT said the company takes racism allegations seriously, but she hadn’t seen any proof that the driver discriminated against one racial group.
“This is a really diverse group of students. I can pretty much say without a doubt I don't feel like it was racist,” Smith said. “It's pretty clear that he dismissed what he felt was a group that was distracting. He wasn't targeting students."
Burlington School District spokesperson Russ Elek did not immediately return a phone call for comment.