x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

New rules for school bus staff

Tighter controls after alleged assault on four-year-old girl

DUBAI // School bus staff will undergo background checks with police security clearances in a new safety regime triggered by an alleged sexual assault on a four-year-old girl.

The tighter regulations will include a clear delineation of the responsibilities of the school and the bus operator, and a requirement that drivers and attendants be free of criminal records.

They must also be able to document their safety or childcare qualifications.

Among other planned changes, the tint on school bus windows will be reduced for clearer visibility into the vehicles.

The new regime is expected to be in place by the start of the new school year.

Transport officials said the tougher controls were a result of the reaction to the incident involving the little girl aboard a school bus in an empty car park in November. It caused widespread concern, with parents complaining of a lack of security. Two attendants and a bus driver have been charged with aggravated sexual assault of a minor.

"Based on what happened with that little girl, we will have more guidelines now to make it more regulated," said Mohammed al Hashimi, the director of planning and business development for the Public Transport Agency of the Roads and Transport Authority (RTA).

"We are raising our recommendations … we feel in this sector we must do something. There are existing guidelines but these are general. Now we will make it a clear responsibility."

Most schools outsource transport to private bus companies, which are regulated by the RTA.

About 84,000 of the 150,000 private-school pupils in Dubai used school buses in 2008, according to the latest available RTA figures.

Security screening for drivers and attendants is carried out by the bus operators and the schools. Criminal record checks for Indian workers - the majority of school bus staff - are done in their home country and are mandatory for the issue of work visas.

"We cannot be involved in procurement or the general hiring process, but these new regulations will put things in place and will definitely help," Mr al Hashimi said.

School principals said the new rules would help to foster a stronger sense of security among students and parents alike.

"I think it's a good idea," said Neville de Noronha, the principal of Our Own High School. "A school runs on two principles, that children should be safe and happy. If the RTA regulations help to ensure safety on buses, we are all for that vision."

After the November incident several schools increased vigilance by staffing buses with female attendants or female teachers. Mr de Noronha said schools would also welcome guidelines that insisted on Dubai police clearances.

"It would make sense to do checks here," he said. "If a person is caught for misbehaviour or drinking the school may not always know, but the police will have a record."

The exact date for the guidelines to take effect was not clear, as they are still being drafted. Mr al Hashimi said they would probably be in place by September.

The RTA also plans to include material about the responsibilities of bus staff in the safe-driving programmes it organises for school bus drivers.

"We are now reviewing the material we are giving to the drivers," Mr al Hashimi said. "We are improving it based on comments we have received from schools."

Transport authorities review safety regulations annually. The RTA regulations put in place in 2009 prompted a major overhaul of the school transport system with the introduction of seat belts, a speed limit of 80kph and the removal of folding seats.

rtalwar@thenational.ae