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.

*headdesk*

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.

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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!

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. 🙂

First ICAN Cowichan Valley meeting: Success!

The first ICAN Cowichan Valley meeting took place at my house this past week, and my immediate response was why did it take me so long to get around to organizing this?!  I wish I’d done this 4 years ago, when I was postpartum with my daughter.  If you’re unfamiliar with what ICAN does, you can read their mission statement and more information here.  It’s critical to have an organization advocating for women, and supporting women who experience cesarean sections, and ICAN does incredible work in many different ways, both through its central office and local chapters all over the world.

The turnout for the Cowichan Valley meeting was better than I expected.  Out of respect for confidentiality, I’m not going to write anything about the women who came, but suffice it to say that there is a clear need for this group in our community.  It’s gratifying to feel like we’re doing something for one another in the immediate sense of offering face-to-face emotional support, information and resources.  More than that, it’s energizing to be taking concrete steps to make a bigger change:  to ensure that women have access to VBAC, to talk about how to make the c-sections that do happen more family-centred and woman- and baby-friendly, to strategize around how to talk with our care providers and ensure that we’re being heard, before c-sections happen as well as afterward.

These meetings are small steps, to be sure, but sometimes even the tiniest movement is meaningful.

Birth community and a little update

A while back I posted about wanting to generate a birth network here in the Cowichan Valley.  But the crazy few months that followed meant that that wish never got too much further than a blog post and a couple of discussions with friends.  So I was super excited when I was invited to join a circle of women at the new Matraea Centre in Duncan, called together by Sarah Juliusson of Island Mother, Dancing Star Birth, Birth Your Business, and other cool projects. Sarah took the initiative to bring a group of people whose work supports pregnant and birthing families for a Birthing from Within training for professionals and discussion about our local birth community. 

I was tired and rushed last night, and had had one of those days where it’s lucky I work mostly from home because other humans would not have appreciated my mood.  But I made it to Matraea nonetheless, and am so glad I did.  I already knew some of the women there including the midwives, and a postpartum doula (aka goddess) who founded the New Mom Centre, and I met some others whose services include pre and postnatal yoga, and prenatal dance and art.  It was amazing to be sitting in a room full of so much excitement–excitement about Matraea, excitement about building connections in this community, excitement about sharing a common enthusiasm for supporting women and families. 

It was exciting and also educational.  Sarah took us through an exercise designed to help us examine the way we listen and respond to women when they talk about pregnancy and birth.  We worked in pairs to practice not only reflective listening but also body language that shows our clients that we are ready to ‘meet them where they are.’  I took away the message that we need to really hear what women are saying, recognize the validity of their position, and work with them so that the choice they make is truly theirs and not an empty reflection of our values.  This process focuses not on the outcome–not on what a woman ultimately chooses to do–but on how she gets there.  Does she feel supported?  Does she feel confident?  Does she believe that she is the most important person in the equation?  Does she own her own pregnancy, birth, and body? 

Tomorrow I’m going to start going to one of Sarah’s Mama Renew groups.  I’m not sure I’ll be able to do the whole session; I may have a scheduling conflict, but I won’t know for a while.  So, in the meantime, I’m going and I’m really curious about what it’s going to be like.  I have pretty much no idea what to expect!  But I hear it’s an awesome group of women (8 or 10, I think), so I figure it can only be good. 

Tonight is the first ICAN meeting here at my house for the Cowichan Valley chapter.  I’m nervous, which is funny because there’s really nothing to be nervous about.  I’ve wanted to do this for such a long time, as I think a group like this can really make a huge difference in a woman’s life, if it’s there for her at the right moment.  So, even if no one comes, just spreading the word and waiting so that ICAN is available for any person who may need it at any point in the future is good enough.

ICAN of the Cowichan Valley

Forgive me, readers, for it has been many months since my last post.  I took a little professional detour (can you detour from an already diversified path? hmmm…).  It was interesting, and among other things, gave me an opportunity to reevaluate my values and priorities. 

And now that I’m back from my sojourn, I’ve re-prioritized my work around birth advocacy.  To that end, I’ve (finally!) gotten around to doing something I’ve been talking about for years:  I just started a new chapter of ICAN, the International Cesarean Awreness Network, here in the Cowichan Valley.  ICAN of the Cowichan Valley, like other ICAN groups, will offer resources and information about cesarean sections, and provide support to women who are recovering from a c-section or trying to avoid an unecessary surgery. 

After I had Annika, I attended one ICAN meeting down in Victoria.  But for a variety of reasons, including distance (it was a 2-hour drive, round-trip), I never managed to get to another one.  I’ve always regretted that, and wished I’d had a practical option beyond suffering in isolation with the aftermath of her birth.  I did have a wonderful circle of online friends who helped me through those years, but there is a lot to be said for face-to-face, local connections, especially in the postpartum phase.  And there is also a lot to be said for a specialized group like an ICAN support group.  It’s often hard for women to talk about their experiences with surgical birth, as many people still trot out the ‘but you have a healthy baby!’ dismissals, and unecessary c-sections have become normalized in our society.  ICAN groups can offer a safe place for women to connect with others who are likely to empathize, and willing to listen without judgment to their stories.

I’m still in the process of getting the group up and running–it was only officially registered yesterday, and I have yet to plan any actual events or meetings!  My hope is to find a central space where we can gather, perhaps beginning in late May or early June, and go from there.  So, local folks, please help to spread the word and encourage people to contact me at icancowichan@gmail.com.  Local and far-flung, like our Facebook page. Thanks to all of you for helping me let people know about this important new resource.

Fit 4 Two is back in session in the Cowichan Valley!

Well, Fit 4 Two Mid Vancouver Island is now officially back in business!  Friday and Saturday I taught two trial sessions of Stroller Fitness, one in Shawnigan Lake and the other in Duncan, to introduce the class to a new group of moms.  It was so much fun! 

First of all, the babies–the babies!  Who doesn’t love a cute baby?  It’s awesome to look out at the class and see these adorable little faces.  It’s also a really interesting challenge to learn not to be distracted by their sweetness while teaching the class. 

And the moms…I’m impressed!  There were moms ranging from 2 months to a couple of years postpartum, and all of them rocked it!  Some were more accustomed to exercising than others, but each one gave it her all, and it was exciting to get to introduce people to a new kind of work out.  My hope is that everyone came away with some new knowledge and ideas about ways of moving their bodies, which they can carry on into their lives whether or not they choose to take more classes with me. 

My goal for the next classes I teach is to do more to emphasize building and/or re-building mind-body connections.  This is such an important skill to have for everyone, but all the more so for pregnant and postpartum women–it’s crucial during labour and birth, and while trying to figure out how to move and live in a body that has just had a baby.  Our bodies change so much during pregnancy; they literally feel different to inhabit, and it takes some pretty big adjustments to work with new proportions, appreciate new capabilities, and manage new stresses and strains.  I believe really strongly in mindful, conscious movement, and pregnancy and the postpartum phase–when everything feels different, and every day is a new experience–are exciting opportunities to discover exactly what that means.  

This week I’ll be continuing with Stroller Fitness, and teaching the first classes in the Mom & Baby, and Prenatal Fitness series.  These are both studio-based classes, whereas Stroller Fitness is outdoors and mobile, combining intervals of strength training with power walking and/or cardio drills.  The studio classes this week will also use intervals, including aerobic-style cardio and work with resistance bands, hand weights, and body balls.  I’m hoping to see some of the Stroller Fitness moms at the Mom & Baby class on Tuesday, and looking forward to seeing a new group at Prenatal. 

Getting into the fall session is confirming what I already knew, which is that teaching these classes is absolutely a labour of love for me.  It is really exhilarating to work with these women, to provide an environment where they can make connections with each other, and to know that people are leaving the classes feeling better than when they came in (even if better means a little sore, lol).   I’m looking forward to another great week!

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