NFTA and Buffalo schools return to routed subway passes for students
Last year, major brawls between Buffalo high schoolers were coordinated in real time on social media. Students could search their phones for where a fight was going to happen, such as University Station or a specific school, Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority officials said.
Sometimes hundreds of students showed up, though many ventured onto the site just to watch. And if the location of the fight changed, as it often did, most high school students had the means to get there — their subway pass.
The NFTA pinned the problem on students in grades 10-12 taking advantage of their all-access subway bus and train passes, which allowed transportation on any city route up to 19 hours. In Buffalo Public Schools, only students through 8th grade ride yellow school buses. operated by First Student. High school students receive special student passes to ride NFTA buses or the subway.
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Until fall 2019, students could only use the passes on specific routes to get directly to and from school. But that changed after parent groups fought to “open up” the contract to give students more flexibility in transport for extracurricular activities.
The Transportation Authority and Buffalo Public Schools decided this summer to return to routed bus passes.
“The main thing is to get from school straight to home,” said Gary Bennett, senior transportation planner for the NFTA.
Reducing large public altercations is an important part of new NFTA Transit Police Chief Brian Patterson’s coordinated safety plan. James Morrell, director of transit for the NFTA, citing the authority’s shared responsibility with the district for student safety, said the NFTA has met with district officials to reevaluate the agreement.
“Just imagine 200 kids, 150 kids at a particular station, not necessarily fighting, but just heckling and being kids,” Morrell said. “It’s disrupting our service, it’s disrupting our regular passengers. It wasn’t a great look for us in terms of operations. Tons of complaints.
For more than three years, the union that represents Buffalo public school teachers and the Buffalo school board have been unable to agree on the terms of a new contract. The stress is starting to set in.
“It’s not safe for your students and it’s not good for our operations,” Morrell recalled when telling district officials. “We need to start putting routing on all students again.”
But parent groups who have fought for open-access passes say the new policy is unfair and needs to be reconsidered.
The change affects about 10,000 students who rely on public transportation, said NFTA spokeswoman Helen Tederous, split between Buffalo schools, charter, private and Catholic schools. Under Buffalo Schools policy, subway transportation is available to any high school student who lives more than 1½ miles from their school. The school district pays less per student than a typical passenger’s monthly pass, Tederous said.
Buffalo Public Schools Superintendent Tonja Williams wants walk-through metal detectors installed at every high school in the district by the end of the school year.
The NFTA’s desire for a revised policy dovetailed with Buffalo Schools Superintendent Tonja M. Williams’ emphasis on student safety during her first months as superintendent, sparked by violence at McKinley last year and at School 355 in September. In an interview, Williams echoed stories of incidents at subway stations that required additional NFTA police presence, which influenced her decision.
“Certainly, when we considered limiting NFTA passes for children, we didn’t decide this by accident,” Williams said.
District officials and the NFTA will ensure that students who need transportation for extracurricular activities or to get to work are taken care of — and those mechanisms already exist.
Options include after-school passes that expire at the end of a sports or activity season, work-study passes, one-way passes, Saturday passes, and McKinney-stickers. Vento for students moving between temporary residences. Williams said the student had to show “evidence of need.”
“It still gives them a lot of freedom in terms of whether they need to go to school-sanctioned events,” Bennett said.
But even with opportunities for student employees and student athletes, parents are challenging the philosophy behind limiting transportation passes.
“This is a knee-jerk reaction from the district,” said Sam Radford of We the Parents and a member of the Operation Sunrise Transportation Committee that the district assembled to address other transportation issues. He didn’t think the district and the NFTA had given the total access approach enough of a chance.
The larger problem, said Jessica Bauer Walker of the Community Health Worker Network and the School Health and Wellness Collaborative, is a lack of trust in students — and the tougher policing of them.
All but one of the school board members endorsed the motion, with an overwhelming sense that a creative solution must be attempted urgently.
“The vast majority of students use their bus passes responsibly to get where they need to go for family, education, work and other pursuits,” she said. “Transportation access and mobility justice should be part of BPS’ stated commitment to equity.”
In 2017, Keith Jones, chair of the BPTO’s transportation committee, joined current school board member Larry Scott in an effort to improve subway access for students. Jones said last week his reasons for pushing for change remain valid.
“The best thing would be to start with all-access passes and then move to routed passes if a student struggles,” Scott said. “There must be compassion in everything they do.” He said it was up to NFTA security officers to put an end to the fighting, which he said is inevitable, regardless of bus policy.
Members of Radford, Jones and BPTO cited reasons why the all-access pass made sense. They noted the variety of family structures in the district, where a student might have to visit an aunt on Tuesday but a grandmother across town on Thursday. If a student wants to visit a family member in the hospital or run errands to help out after school, they will need to file paperwork to announce the change, and the district will need to do so quickly to accommodate.
The NFTA has announced plans to upgrade Bailey Avenue bus service, now covered by the #19 Subway Bus Route, to meet the highest industry standards for modern public transport. Part of the plan is to continue funding the “bus rapid transit”, or BRT.
Jones said the routed approach could compromise student safety in other ways. If a student has already had an incident with someone along their prescribed route, they should still take a reasonably direct route home. Jones added that gang territories or other dangerous areas could play a role in a student’s bus choice. “It’s like sending children into the lion’s mouth,” Jones said.
Patterson, the NFTA’s police chief, said he took public transit this month from University Station to Fountain Plaza to assess the passenger experience. It’s still early in the school year, but he’s seen improvement. He thinks the routed approach works.
“There’s a much more manageable level of order and there’s a noticeable reduction in fighting,” he said.
Despite the change, Morrell didn’t think much had been taken away from the city’s high schoolers.
“They haven’t lost their freedom. They still have access to it,” he said. “What’s missing now is the responsibility for them to behave as a whole, not as an individual.”
Ben Tsujimoto can be reached at [email protected], (716) 849-6927 or on Twitter at @Tsuj10.