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Reliability and Safety Among Bus Concerns for City Youth

High school students say some teens give up and return home if a bus is late, rather than go to school.

Taqi, 17, (right) and Tahir Juba, 15, both in Wide Angle’s Design Team wait for the Number 27. Capital News Service photo by Amirah Al Idrus
Taqi, 17, (right) and Tahir Juba, 15, both in Wide Angle’s Design Team wait for the Number 27. Capital News Service photo by Amirah Al Idrus
By AMIRAH AL IDRUS
Capital News Service

Students at Wide Angle Youth Media, which runs after-school programs, could have chosen any issue as the subject of their project a couple of years back. But the teenagers decided they wanted to spend the year working on a media campaign to improve school attendance by improving bus service.

The bus figures large in the lives of Baltimore youth. It’s how they get to school. It’s how they travel to see each other. It’s how they get to movie theaters, the mall and after-school jobs.

“Without the bus, you don’t have a ride and you get stuck,” said Dominic Solomon, 15, a 10th-grader who takes two buses to school.

Baltimore’s school system spends about $5.7 million on bus passes for high school students each year. These passes, called S-Passes, are only valid on weekdays from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.

But the students at Wide Angle, a nonprofit organization that teaches media education in after-school programs, believe the bus pass system, meant to make it easier for students to get to school, actually makes it harder to get there when buses run late or skip stops.

Arianna Clatterbuck, a 17-year-old student in this year’s Attendance and Design Team program at Wide Angle, has only a 10- to 15-minute commute to school. But her wait at the bus stop can be much longer.

“Either (the bus) doesn’t come, or it’s late,” she said. If it is late, she’ll wait, but other students, she said, give up.

Unreliable buses aren’t the only concern.

Elijah Austin, 17, has been struck by other passengers twice on MTA buses.

“People are very violent on buses,” the 12th-grader said. “Some random guy just hit me and got off the bus. I’m just glad he didn’t take my things.”

Solomon thinks drivers tend not to see thefts or fights that occur on board and would like to see more security on buses.

Other students say buses pass them by at bus stops, even if the bus has plenty of space. They figure it’s because they’re kids.

“Bus drivers have a lot of prejudice towards students,” said Hassan Abu-Hakim, 14. “If you go to a certain school, which has a certain reputation, the drivers prejudge the kids and are mean and hateful towards you.”

According to the Maryland State Department of Education, the state satisfactory level of school attendance is 94 percent. The high school attendance rate for Baltimore City in 2012 was 81 percent. The next lowest attendance, reported by Prince George’s County, was a full 10 percentage points higher, at 91 percent.

“More than 86 percent of Baltimore City Public Schools students who need public transportation to get to school have the transportation they need,” said Dr. Beshon Smith, from the Attendance and Truancy Office at the Baltimore City Public Schools, citing an “extensive study” done through a staff member at the MTA.

But the study also found that some routes don’t have enough buses, and commutes that involve more than one bus can go awry if one of the buses is late, Smith said.

Two years ago, the Wide Angle students created a campaign to encourage students to use the Rate Your Ride service run by the MTA in an effort to improve service. Rate Your Ride allows riders to give real-time feedback directly to the MTA. According to the Rate Your Ride website, the data collected is analyzed -- but only quarterly.

The students designed posters to be placed in every middle and high school and in bus shelters, said Becky Slogeris, the Design Team instructor. They made infographics showing the most rated routes, rider satisfaction and the percentage of the time that buses are late. They also produced a video commercial to encourage fellow students to rate their ride.

Lyle Kendrick and Justine McDaniel contributed to this story.

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