FAIL: Bus Safety and School District 79

Note: I haven’t had a lot of time recently for this blog, but today’s events require a post.

Today, for the second time in two months, Cowichan Valley School District 79 lost my 5-year old daughter on the school bus.  Because our area lacks any on-site out-of-school care programs, and because my husband and I both work, she takes the school bus daily from her school to an after-school  program run by a local daycare centre.  The principal of her school sees the children on to the buses, but evidently from there, they are on their own.

The bus system lost her for the first time about a month ago. She was left at the side of the road in a neighbourhood nowhere close to her intended destination. The driver’s explanation was that she (it may have been a he; I don’t recall) saw an adult at the stop and believed that was who Annika was meeting. Luckily, although the adult was a complete stranger to us, she was a parent meeting other children from the same school, and equally luckily, my crying 4-year old (this was shortly before her birthday) had the wherewithal to pull the card out of her bag where we’d written her contact information, hand it to said parent, and ask for help. The parent called the school, the school called me, and I left work early to pick her up at the other parent’s house, relieved that Annika was okay. We spoke with the school and the school district, and were assured it would not happen again. The school district’s bus supervisor promised she would speak with the driver, who she said was “a spare,” to make sure the driver was more careful in the future. Without a lot of options, we took them at their word. [ETA: I went back and checked my records, and this first incident actually took place on Oct. 31, 8 days after her 5th birthday.]

Our bad.

Today, about an hour after school was dismissed, her after-school program phoned me to ask where she was. Cue major panic. “What do you mean, where is she? Why isn’t she with you?!” A flurry of somewhat frantic phone calls ensued between me, my husband, the daycare, the school, the police, and the bus supervisor. Annika was located about 10 minutes later, still on her bus. It seems that the daycare provider—who meets several kids at the bus stop each day to walk them back to the centre—had not seen her on the bus and assumed she was absent, and the bus driver did not check to see if all the children who were to get off at that stop actually got off the bus. After I called the elementary school, and the principal called the bus supervisor, the supervisor radio’d the bus driver, who brought her back to the daycare centre. While Annika was very upset, she was safe and unharmed, and we soon had her back at home.

The upshot of today’s loss is that for an hour, between dismissal, and eventual arrival at the centre, my 5-year old was left to her own devices, and the adult entrusted with her safety both had no idea who she was and took no responsibility for her whereabouts. My 5-year old. My baby. It could have been someone else’s baby; other days, it probably is. Today, it was mine.

When I spoke with the bus supervisor, her answer was that that particular bus route is staffed by casuals. (Note that last month the answer was it was just a “spare”—no indication that spares are, in fact, the norm on bus 5.) The individual who “owns” the route is on temporary leave in another position, but union rules prevent the district from posting the position for a replacement. Instead, someone different drives the bus each day, which means that unlike other routes, the driver is not familiar with the children or where they are going. This is astounding when you think that even my 15-year old’s bus driver knows her by name; to think that my 5-year old, by contrast, is just an anonymous, random child on her bus is utterly ridiculous, and clearly a safety risk.

The supervisor’s solution was that Annika should sit at the front of the bus, with an older child who will be her buddy, and the daycare should be more careful to ensure they pick her up appropriately. I’m with them on the final point, and you can bet the daycare got an earful from me as well—there is shared accountability here, no doubt. However, the daycare’s problem was one individual’s mistake: one teacher didn’t do her due diligence. By contrast, the district’s problem is a systems issue: this bus route is insufficiently supervised, and the district claims there is nothing they can do about it.

A fundamental problem with the district’s proposed ‘solution’ is that it puts the onus on children to look out for themselves: my 5-year old is supposed to be responsible enough to sit in the right spot, and someone else’s child, who couldn’t be more than 11, given the age groupings in her school, is being given an enormous and completely inappropriate responsibility of caring for a younger child. While these are good safeguards, and we certainly will follow through with both if she ever rides the bus again, they are nowhere close to enough—these are safeguards only, not solutions. We simply can’t trust Annika to do the right thing. 5-year olds are too young for that. They are babies. From a developmental perspective, expecting her to be responsible for herself is unrealistic and utterly absurd. Granted, she’s a smart cookie and I think she might be able to do the right thing most of the time. But I wouldn’t count on it. Distract her with something sparkly and all bets are off.

I proposed (and I admit my proposal was stated in a fairly loud and angry tone—I think that is understandable, given the situation) that the drivers on this route, because they are casual, need to take extra safety measures and in addition to having a list of which children are on the bus, should take an extra minute at each stop to consult the list and make sure the kids who are meant to get off do in fact get off, and the kids who are meant to stay on, stay on. This is not rocket science. The supervisor’s response? Absolutely not. Why? Because it will “frustrate” the car drivers who get stuck behind the stopped school bus.


The supervisor was sure to point out to me that I was the one being difficult, as I tried to explain to her why her proposals just didn’t cut it. The daycare teachers were similarly defensive. Guess what. I don’t care. I don’t care why the district lost my child, or why the daycare teacher couldn’t find her. I. Don’t. Care.  All I care about is her safety. I trust the district with my child 5 days per week, from the time she gets on the morning bus, until she is (supposedly) safely delivered to the professionally-run daycare program that we pay to look after her until the work day is done. Bottom line: I can’t trust the district anymore. No parent can.

I asked the supervisor if she could please guarantee me that Annika would be safe if I were to put her on the bus again. I asked her to guarantee that she would not be lost again. She evaded the question because, clearly, she can’t. There is something seriously wrong with this picture.

The best solution would be for the schools to have on-site after-school care. That would solve the problem and would be a benefit to many, many families. But we can’t hold our breath waiting for that to take place.

In any case, School District 79 must be held accountable, and must guarantee the safety and security of each and every child on the buses, at all times. Anything short of a 100% guarantee—no excuses, no exceptions, no pawning the responsibility off on anyone else—is simply unacceptable. As long as a child is inside that bus, the district is responsible for that child. End of story.

Thanks to the generosity of a friend who has offered to pick up, Annika won’t have to ride the bus after school tomorrow. My husband and I simply can’t put her back on that bus. It just isn’t safe. I worry about all the other children who will still be riding. I don’t know what our long-term solution will be, but I do know that I’m not going to go gently into the night: this is not the last that School District 79 has heard from me.


ICAN Cowichan Valley on TV!

ICAN of the Cowichan Valley has been lucky enough to get some coverage on our local cable TV channel!  I make some stupid faces, and unfortunately, the parts about how to prevent c-sections and promote VBAC got cut in favour of my ridiculous comments about Ricki Lake (the interviewer asked the dreaded celebrity question and I got stumped, having prepared to talk about things that are much more “serious” and on point), but still…good publicity.  I should also point out that Haley, who speaks about her c-section after 24 hours of labour, had a VBAC with her second baby, seen in the clip (who is, not incidentally, totally adorable).

This comes at a good time, as we’re gearing up for some great events this fall.  Our September meeting will be an open topic support group, but we’re going to have some thematic action for the rest of 2011!  Each meeting will still have a support group component, with topics determined by the women in attendance.  But we’ve also got some amazing guest speakers lined up.  In October, Sarah Juliusson of Island Mother is going to speak about giving birth by cesarean again, to help participants transform a cesearean into a connected, and confident birth experience.  Our November meeting will be a birth plan workshop with Cindy Storie-Soth of Cowichan Childbirth, who will help women to articulate a vision for their birth that identifies their values and priorities, while being flexible and responsive to the unpredictability of any birth experience.  And we’ll end the year with a screening of The Business of Being Born, and a discussion of how the issues raised there apply (or don’t) to birthing women in Canada, as well as some brainstorming about how we can develop individual strategies to help improve the care we receive.

Lots more plans cooking for 2012, so stay tuned!

What Did Your Doula Do For You?

Giving Birth with Confidence has launched a blog carnival focusing on doulas! I’m psyched about this, because I love doulas, and this is why. It’s an older post, but it still is really the best way I can express what my doula did for me, and why I am such a huge believer in this kind of labour support.

Like Cara at Giving Birth With Confidence, Ialso want to shout, “Every woman deserves a doula!”  Doulas are awesome. And I’ve been learning a ton about how many different kinds of doulas there are over at The Radical Doula. I used to think it was just birth doulas and postpartum doulas, but I’ve discovered that there are full-spectrum doulas who attend women through a variety of experiences including pregnancy loss and termination, doulas who work with women in custody, and so many more who provide women with much-needed personalized support. 

So if you are pregnant or know someone who is pregnant, or going through a pregnancy-related experience and need support, consider finding a doula. If you can’t afford to hire one, there are often student doulas who are happy to provide services free of charge in order to gain needed experience. You can find a doula through DONA International among other professional organizations, or by asking your doctor, midwife or other birth professional.  If you’re local, ICAN Cowichan Valley keeps an up to date list of local birth and postpartum doulas, so comment here  if you need help finding the right support person for you.

Read Donna’s Cancer Story

No one wants to think about a child dying, or to consider what it must be like to be a parent watching your child suffer and not being able to help.   I’ve struggled to find the right words to say to friends and family who have lost children–nothing is ever right, every word or phrase comes out like some God-awful platitude or cop-out or worse. I don’t know how people who have experienced this kind of loss even continue to breathe, day by day, let alone live full lives, but even saying this much somehow cheapens their experience:  who the hell cares what I can comprehend?  What difference does it make what I think in the face of their suffering? 

I don’t have any answers to those massive and not at all rhetorical questions.  But, reading Donna’s cancer story is helping me to think about them with more complexity.  The story is part of Mary Tyler Mom’s blog, and it has been serialized as 31 segments, each representing one month in this little girl’s cancer treatment.  It is intended to honour Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, and it is an opportunity to learn how a family copes with a child’s debilitating illness and what I can only characterize as the ultimate kind of devastation.  Nothing I say can possibly approach the power of Mary Tyler Mom’s own words, either in this interview or in the blog itself.  So I encourage you all to read it and share it.  As I read each day, I’m starting to understand that witnessing a child’s shortened life may be the best way to support the family that outlives her.  This story gives us all an opportunity to acknowledge that Donna was here, and that her life continues to matter.  From the small amount I know from my friends whose children have passed away far too soon, continuing to acknowledge their lives and deaths even when it is incredibly painful because it stirs up the worst fears in any parent’s heart seems to be one of the most important things any of us can do.

So, if you can–even more importantly, if you think you can’t–read Donna’s story.  It’s well worth the time and the sadness in ways I think will take a long time to fully understand.

New Fit 4 Two classes starting next week!

It’s that time of year again: new schools for both my kids (one in high school, one in kindergarten, OMG), and new classes for me to teach.  Next week I’m running two free trials for Fit 4 TwoStroller Fitness on Monday morning and Prenatal Fitness on Tuesday evening.  I love doing the free trials because they’re an opportunity to welcome new folks, show them what Fit 4 Two is all about and hopefully give them some take-home ideas for how to maintain or improve their fitness levels, and also to say “thank you” to repeat customers by giving them a little freebie before the new session begins in earnest.

This session is going to be a lot of fun.  We’ve had a beautiful August, and I’m really hoping the weather stays nice enough to keep Stroller Fitness outside!  In the event it doesn’t, however, we will use the gym at the community centre and do an indoor version of this mobile workout.  With any luck, we may be able to take parts of Prenatal Fitness outside, too, since it’s still light outside well into the evening.  I’m still working with some of the moms and babies who took my prenatal classes last fall.  Now I’m looking forward to seeing some new faces, and being even a small part of such an important time in women’s lives.  One of my favourite things to do as a fitness instructor is the relaxation segment that concludes every Prenatal Fitness class, where we take a few minutes to just be mindful of how we each feel at that moment, to focus without judgment on the transformations taking place in each of the women’s bodies, and to experiencing each moment fully without worrying about what came before or what we have to do next.  I like it because, let’s face it, we can all use some relaxation at the end of a long day, and because there is no better preparation for labour and birth than learning to accept and respect your body for what it is, what it can do, and what it needs in the moment.

In addition to Stroller and Prenatal Fitness, I’m also adding a new class format to the schedule this year, Tummies 4 Mommies, which I’m pretty excited about.  It’s a progressive series of classes that focus specifically on postpartum core rehabilitation. Participants will learn techniques for engaging and strengthening their core muscles from the inside out, and they’ll get handouts to take home so they can practice their technique on their own time (or not).  So many people spend so much time doing a million crunches to no avail (and actually with a potentially negative impact if they experienced diastasis recti during pregnancy or if they haven’t first strengthened their deeper core muscles):  I’m looking forward to working in a very focused way with women to help them activate the muscle groups that are really going to give them an integrated, effective approach to building a stable core, and help protect them from some of the problems that result from weak muscles in this area (can anyone say urinary incontinence? boo…). Core classes are also fun because they offer lots of opportunities to interact with the babies during the workout.  The babies are adorable, plus this takes the pressure off the moms to try and fit their exercise in between moments of fussiness as they can continue to snuggle, play or even nurse throughout a lot of the movements!  If you want to learn more about core conditioning during and after pregnancy, check out this month’s edition of Fit 4 Two’s newsletter, and remember that there are franchises operating all over western Canada, so there are lots of opportunties to join these classes. 🙂

In defense of heroism

How many times have you heard something along the lines of, “There is no medal for having a natural birth,” or “Don’t be a hero—have an epidural/scheduled c-section/other intervention of choice”?

Well, it occurred to me yesterday as I was on the return leg of my after-work run, that one reason I loved giving birth to my first child with no pain medications was that when all was said and done, I did feel like a hero. Not because giving birth unmedicated made me superior to other women: not in the slightest. This is not about relative judgments. Rather, I felt like I’d just beaten my own personal best—I did something that, going in, I wasn’t at all sure I could do, and that turned out to be much harder work than I’d ever imagined.  (They don’t call it “labour” for nothing, let me tell you.)  The feeling I had after giving birth was something like the feeling I get when I run faster or further, when I lift heavier weights or increase my endurance so I can do more reps: stronger and more powerful than I’d ever been before.

And, yes, heroic. I know that millions of women give birth unmedicated all over the world. It’s utterly common. But it’s still a big deal for each and every individual woman, just like each and every baby is a big deal for an individual family, despite the fact that there are 7 billion of us crawling around all over this little planet.

I’d argue that every birth is heroic. Every woman who gives of her body in that way, who grows and births a child, is doing something fundamentally heroic and worth honouring. At our last ICAN meeting, we talked about the idea of “cesarean courage.” Pushing your body to its limits, bringing your child into the world safely with only your own labour (in both senses) to thank is an amazing, empowering experience. And putting your body on the table—telling a doctor who you may not ever have even met before, yes, cut me open, bring my baby into this world, whatever you have to do to me in the process is collateral damage—may feel anything but empowering at the time, but is actually an incredible testament to a woman’s strength in a time of crisis, and to her willingness to do whatever it takes to save someone else’s life. I’m not sure there’s a better definition of heroism than that.

There are many different ways to feel empowered by birth. This Empowered Birth Week, I’m thinking of all the women I know who have shared their birth experiences, and shown their incredible strength as they birth naturally, as they birth after induction, as they consent to life-saving interventions, as they fight back against a system that causes needless problems during their births, as they stand up to their own fears to birth their babies safely, as they birth their babies and then watch them struggle in the NICU, as they birth their babies in the comfort of their own homes, as they give birth in custody, as they birth babies for other families, as they birth in as many different circumstances as there are different women. None of them will get medals (although my mother did get me a really beautiful engraved watch after Clea was born), but all of them, each and every one, embodies a unique kind of power that deserves both celebration and respect.


It all really just comes down to this:

Stop pathologizing my body.

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