Parent challenges DL schools: Says bus seating arrangement unfair to trailer park kids

Vickie Rudolph of Detroit Lakes vows to do whatever it takes to defeat a long-standing seating arrangement on the bus her sons ride to school, a policy she says unfairly stigmatizes the students of a mobile home park.

Vickie Rudolph of Detroit Lakes vows to do whatever it takes to defeat a long-standing seating arrangement on the bus her sons ride to school, a policy she says unfairly stigmatizes the students of a mobile home park.

The mom of three adopted her mission shortly after moving into Riverview Terrace last fall after finding out the park is the last stop on a school bus route to Detroit Lakes Middle School, and students who board there must sit in the front three rows. The school district says the rule makes boarding much faster and safer. To Rudolph, it chips away at Riverview students' self-esteem and sets them up for taunts by their peers.

"The end result has hurt these kids emotionally," says Rudolph, a Clay County Social Services employee. "You're segregating these kids out, and this is wrong."

Rudolph moved to Riverview temporarily last fall as she waited for the completion of a new home. Days later, her son Jeff Windels, 16, who rides the bus with brother Blake, 13, complained to her about the seating arrangement. Unaware of the rule, Jeff had headed to the back of the bus to sit with friends. He says the driver yelled, "Hey you, trailer park kid, get back to the front."

When he flouted the rule a few days later, he says, fellow students joined in the name-calling.


Ted Heisserer, the school district's business manager, says the seating arrangement cuts boarding time from two or three minutes to less than a minute - and, along with it, the likelihood of rear-ends and other accidents. Otherwise, the bus tends to back up traffic on busy 8th Street. Besides, the school is less than a mile away, so idling at the stop until students find seats doesn't make sense.

"Our interest here was about efficiency and safety," said Superintendent Doug Froke. "The intention is not to place any type of stigma on a certain group of students based on where they live."

Laurie Grotnes, a 30-year veteran of Olander Bus Service, which serves the route, says Rudolph is blowing the issue out of proportion. She says she's never heard taunts at Riverview students: "If something happened on my bus, I would hear about it." She points out no other parent has complained.

The bus company adopted the arrangement seven or eight years ago, Grotnes said. That's when Riverview replaced Highland Drive as the final stop on the route. Highland, a stretch of single-family homes with spacious yards half a mile from Riverview, sees much less traffic than 8th Street, Grotnes said.

Minnesota features no school bus seating guidelines or regulations, said Shelly Jonas of the state's School Bus Operator's Association, so bus rules are up to districts and bus companies. As a safety measure, many districts have students board buses starting from the front; seats in back are considered more dangerous in case the bus is rear-ended.

But arrangements similar to Detroit Lakes' also are not uncommon when the final stop on the route is close to the school: "It doesn't sound discriminatory to me at all."

But Joel Hektner, a North Dakota State University child development professor and expert on bullying, says the policy sends an unintended message to Riverview students and their peers: "To say everybody can sit anywhere they want except that one group is problematic. Students might develop the perception that somehow these students picked up last need to be separated from the rest."

Jeff Windels says Riverview students have long grumbled amongst themselves about the seating rule though few of their parents are aware of it. Neighborhood resident Nicole Johnson, 15, notes there are no similar arrangements for the back of the bus to speed up boarding at previous stops. She also points out other routes don't feature the same rule for their final stop.


"It's messed up because it's only happening to us trailer park kids," said Nicole, adding that "trailer trash" is a common put-down at her school. "They don't like us because of where we live."

In the meantime, Rudolph's sons plan to defy the bus rule even if that means they lose bus privileges. Rudolph says she won't move into her new home until the district cancels the rule: "I will stay here until this has changed. This is how strongly I believe in it."

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Mila Koumpilova at (701) 241-5529

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