The Other 60 Percent

Future cloudy for reducing emissions

More than 2,000 aging Colorado school buses have been retrofitted over the past eight years to limit diesel exhaust emissions, which are known to worsen asthma and other lung ailments, especially in children.

At up to $175,000 per bus, on average, cash-strapped school districts have been slow to replace aging buses with newer, less-polluting models.
At up to $175,000 per bus, cash-strapped school districts have been slow to replace aging buses with newer, less-polluting models.

But recently announced federal budget cutbacks have slashed spending for the Environmental Protection Program’s Clean Diesel Program, which pays for the retrofits.

And for every Colorado school bus that has been retrofitted so far, officials estimate there’s at least one more that hasn’t been but ought to be.

Should the federal funding not be restored, officials aren’t sure what will become of state plans to retrofit the remaining buses. It’s possible that other funding sources could be found but there are no guarantees.

“We’ll be retrofitting buses at least through Sept. 30 and probably beyond,” said Lisa Silva, air quality planner for the Air Pollution Control Division of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and manager of the Clean Diesel Program for the state.

“We’ve applied for another grant, which could go through 2012. We just have to wait and see what happens after this fiscal year.”

‘Clean Diesel’ retrofitted 2,000 buses

The state-run Clean Diesel Program, launched in 2006, targets school districts outside the metro area. It has retrofitted about 1,000 buses in Pueblo, El Paso, Garfield, Rio Blanco and Weld counties, at a cost of about $3.4 million.

A threat to children
“Students could be breathing this in twice a day, five days a week, nine months a year for 12 years.”
— Greg Davis, EPA

In Denver and its suburbs, a similar program is administered through the Regional Air Quality Council. Launched in 2003, RAQC has retrofitted about 1,000 buses in the seven-county metro area, at a cost of about $3.5 million.

Later this year, buses in Gunnison, Cotopaxi, Dolores Re-2 and Bayfield school districts are due for retrofits but at least a dozen other school districts have requested assistance. Silva estimates there may be 3,000 buses still running on Colorado roads that are needlessly belching toxins into the air – and likely into the lungs of their passengers.

“Researchers at National Jewish tell us they see a lot more asthma attacks that are very likely induced by school bus rides on diesel school buses that are not retrofitted,” Silva said. “That’s an immediate effect. Long-term, there have been studies that show exposure to mobile source air toxins can do permanent damage to the lungs by the time a child is 18.”

Rural riders particularly at risk

The problem is particularly acute in the state’s rural areas, where students may spend upwards of two to three hours a day on board buses. That doesn’t count time spent traveling to and from sporting events, which can add additional hours of bus travel.

Buses by the numbers
  • Nationwide, an estimated 24 million children ride school buses every day.
  • Almost 400,000 diesel school buses are in use – their average age is 10 years old.
  • More than 75,000 buses have been on the road since before 1990.
  • 20-year-old buses are estimated to emit six times the number of toxic particles as buses built before 2004 – and as much as 60 times more than buses built since 2007.
  • But at a cost of $125,000 to $175,000 per bus, school districts are slow to replace old buses with new ones.

The emissions seep in through the doors opening and closing at stops, but also come in from under the hood. The exposure to these toxins is greatest inside the school buses, but non-riders can be exposed while waiting with children at bus stops or stopping behind an idling bus.

Children are at greater risk than adults because their lungs are smaller and because their respiration rate is faster. While adults average 12 to18 breaths per minute, young children may inhale 20 to 40 times per minute. And with each breath they could be inhaling carbon, formaldehyde, and other toxic chemicals found in diesel exhaust fumes.

“Students could be breathing this in twice a day, five days a week, nine months a year for 12 years,” said Greg Davis, Mobile Sources Program Manager for the EPA in Denver, which oversees the Clean Diesel grants. “With each $1 you put into reducing pollutants, you get more than $1 back in reduced health care costs.”

Buses built before 2007 – the year emission control devices became standard on new buses – are eligible for the retrofits, which involve up to three pieces of equipment:

  • Diesel oxidation catalysts, which replace the existing bus mufflers and which decrease tailpipe emissions by 50 percent for hydrocarbons and 20 percent of particulate matter.
  • Crankcase filtration units, which collect burnt oil particles and other emissions that sweep in from under the hood, and reduce them by 95 percent.
  • Engine pre-heaters, small motors that reduce idling by reducing the time buses need to warm up in the morning. Pre-heaters can save 1 gallon per bus per day of diesel fuel.

The cost to retrofit a bus with all three pieces of equipment averages about $3,500, though not all buses have received all three.

Metro districts further along than rest of state

In the Denver metro area, nearly all eligible buses have been retrofitted to reduce tailpipe emissions and many have been fitted with the engine pre-heaters. But fewer have received the crankcase filtration units.

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty
Luke Howe-Kerr, a student at Pueblo's Cedar Ridge Elementary School, watches while technician John Schmidt works to retrofit a Pueblo District 70 school bus. EPA photo.

“Done is relative,” said Steve McCannon, mobile sources program manager for RAQC. “The work will never be done. But we’ve definitely made more progress in the metro area than in the rest of the state.”

He said a lot of metro area school districts have also moved to install GPS systems on their buses. His office has provided 350 of those.

“The benefits to GPS are great. The first piece is knowing where the buses are. We can tell what buses are out there and not moving. We can see if a bus driver is wasting money just sitting in a parking lot. We can also do route optimization,” McCannon said.

The CDPHE and RAQC programs have excelled at getting federal funds, particularly federal stimulus dollars, to pay for these programs. But in February, President Obama’s proposed budget eliminated funding for the Clean Diesel Program, which has proven hugely popular and has bipartisan support.

Nationwide, an estimated 24 million children ride school buses every day and almost 400,000 diesel school buses are in use. Their average age is 10 years old, and more than 75,000 have been on the road since before 1990. Twenty-year-old buses are estimated to emit six times the number of toxic particles that buses built since 2004 emit, and as much as 60 times more than buses built since 2007. But at a cost of $125,000 to $175,000 per bus, on average, cash-strapped school districts are slow to replace old buses with new ones.

That’s why the retrofitting program has been so popular: Relatively speaking, it’s an expensive way to dramatically curb emissions without buying a whole new bus.

“This seems like kind of a no-brainer,” said Lauri Smock, transportation coordinator for the Gunnison Watershed School District, which has been waiting for two years for the state to retrofit its 19 buses.

“We’ve been trying, unless it’s stupid cold, to turn our buses off when they get to the schools and not keep them idling, because schools say they know when buses pull up because they can smell the fumes. The other thing is, in the winter we have our buses plugged in all the time,” she said.

“Those are big engines that have to stay warm. We’re using a lot of money on electricity keeping the buses warm so they’ll start when it’s 20 below outside. But with the pre-heater, it’s timed, it will come on a couple of hours before the driver gets there in the morning and the driver won’t have to plug the bus in, so it will cost us less. It will be just a wonderful program for us.”

GPS tracking touted for bus use

In the Adams County Five Star School District, all 160 buses are now equipped with the latest emissions equipment.

For more information

Transportation director David Anderson said that district is exploring all the ways in which even fancier bells and whistles – like GPS – can be used to curb pollution and boost fuel efficiency.

“GPS has been an amazing tool,” Anderson said. “We know where every bus is at a given moment. I can tell you how long the engine has been running, how long it’s been idling. I never thought it would be as wonderful as it is. At my fingertips, I get instant reports if a vehicle has been idling more than 10 minutes. Think how much fuel that can save.”

Cost to install GPS is $600 per bus. Anderson said he recouped the cost within the first year.

Last year, the district also installed card readers on all its buses, which automatically track when individual students get on and get off. That information helps district officials keep track of ridership, and lets them reconfigure bus routes to avoid empty seats and increase fuel economy.

It also is a student safety tool.

“I don’t think a day goes by when we don’t have a lost elementary kid,” Anderson said. “They get on the wrong bus or get off at the wrong stop. The little ones get easily disoriented. Now, if a first-grader gets lost, I can tell he got off at 1st and Main at 3:20. In the past, it was just a guess. Now I have true documentation that’s instantaneous.”

aftermath

‘Emotionally exhausted’ yet inspired by students: A Memphis educator and gun-control advocate reacts to Parkland

Kat McRitchie, at right, appeared with mothers who lost children to gun violence at a rally outside the National Civil Rights Museum. Photo courtesy Kat McRitchie.

By the time America realized the scope of the school shooting that killed 17 people last week in Parkland, Florida, Kat McRitchie was already weary of responding to gun violence.

A Memphis educator and gun-control advocate, McRitchie had spent the evening before at a candlelight vigil for two Memphis teens gunned down near their high school the previous Friday. She’d spent the weekend reeling from that killing.

And as part of a group called Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, she’d spent countless hours lobbying for policies that could stem the shootings that claim dozens of young people in her city every year.

“Honestly, my emotional reaction to Parkland was, ‘Ugh, this is terrible. Another school shooting,’ but I was emotionally exhausted by the weekend,” said McRitchie. “It wasn’t until Friday that I let myself listen to the video that the student in the closet had taken and let myself feel a response to that.”

The response, when it came, was one of familiarity. McRitchie, the daughter of a Memphis trauma surgeon who treated many gunshot victims, helps train teachers through Memphis Teacher Residency after years of working in city classrooms of her own.

“I can imagine what it feels like to be a student in that classroom,” she said. “I can imagine what it feels like to be a teacher in that classroom.”

Now, McRitchie is looking for ways to help Memphis join a national response to the Parkland shooting that appears to be gaining momentum, rather than dropping out of the headlines. We talked to her about those efforts, how her advocacy work intersects with her teacher training, the complexity of race in the gun-control debate, and more.

How teaching opened her eyes to the reality of gun violence in Memphis: “I never had a student who was shot when I had them, but I saw them walk through the deaths of their family and friends. There was this culture of what to do when someone you know gets shot. Here are the people you call. Here’s how you decide what picture goes on the T-shirt. Kids now choose a hashtag. How to pick the funeral colors. There was a process for when a teenager dies in the way that I would have a process for getting ready for prom. This was a big part of me understanding how gun violence is affecting my community.”

On the reawakened debate over whether teachers should carry guns: “Kids deserve for us to think more creatively than just increasing school security. I cannot think of a single public school teacher who thinks arming teachers is a good idea. I don’t know any teachers who would want to have a gun. I don’t know any teachers who think having a gun in this situation would make themselves or their students safer. All of them say the likelihood of an armed person entering their school for the purpose of a mass shooting is terrifying but extremely small. But how many times do teachers get their purses stolen in schools or drop their expensive calculators? If we have teachers with guns in schools, that just creates opportunities for accidents. Most school shootings now are things like that. More guns in schools will only mean more deaths in schools or more guns get stolen and end up on the street. Even the teachers who have a fear of mass shootings, if you ask them, all of the everyday things that can go wrong with guns in schools are scarier.”

On the outpouring after Parkland after seeing Memphis teens’ deaths go unnoticed nationally: “It can feel frustrating when we know that black children are way more likely to die than white children because of guns. But the thing that has surprised me a little bit is that of the survivors that I know in Memphis — who are predominantly women of color who have lost children to gun violence — I would not have been surprised if the response to the Parkland shooting was, ‘That’s sad, but we’ve been out here on the front lines.’ That is absolutely not the response.

“Every single survivor mom I know has posts about praying for Florida families, expressing grief and solidarity for Florida families. We recognize that gun violence affects people differently along race and class lines, just like education, but there’s just this very shared human experience in responding to the toll of gun violence. That’s one of the things that has been most moving in the last week: watching women respond with grief and not resentment.”

How her work as a teacher coach overlaps with gun violence advocacy: “Part of my work last week was to order coffee for teachers at the high school where the [Memphis] students were killed. Coffee and donuts in the teachers lounge seems a little silly, but Memphis Teacher Residency is all about ‘pursuing a vision of restored communities living with dignity and peace.’ Even going to the vigil for the kids last week, there were teachers there, and colleagues and community partners were there as citizens. One of my colleagues went to the funeral of the young man who was shot last week. When going to a funeral is part of our jobs as teachers — we shouldn’t tolerate that in this country.”

How Memphis Teacher Residency prepares teachers for violence in their communities: “We do have a counselor on staff. That’s one of the greatest services that MTR provides that our teachers and alumni are able to use. Lockdowns are fairly common — actual lockdowns — because of shootings in the area. I know he has walked teachers through, how does it feel going through your first lockdown, going through the death of students. We as coaches would like training about how to do that better when a school is touched by gun violence.”

On “red flag laws,” which would allow law enforcement to seize guns from people who haven’t actually broken any laws: “Moms Demand Action works really hard to promote common-sense gun policies. The thing that I’ve learned in this movement is that me complaining to my like-minded friends about something doesn’t change anything and just makes us angrier and doesn’t make us safer. But we all want our kids to grow up safe; we all want American schools to be safe places — we can actually agree about these things. By having solutions-minded conversations and pushing for evidence-based gun policy, we can reduce the number of Americans that die of gun violence.

One of the most common conversations that I had with teachers in the last week was, ‘Oh, I know who that kid would be.’ I could tell you from my own teaching experience that if something like that happened, it wouldn’t shock me. Teachers know kids. One option that would empower teachers with their specific knowledge is ‘red flag laws.’ We also know that they reduce suicide by guns.

“I would love for people to know that when the response is, ‘We knew that that person was dangerous,’ we can actually have more potential to stop mass shootings. This would be a great thing for teachers to know about and advocate for.”

What comes next: “Having kids leading the response to this particular moment is incredibly powerful. When kids are leading change, the sky’s the limit. Young people are more engaged and more creative than their elders. and I’m incredibly excited to follow the leadership of young people and to support them.

“And to listen to educators about how to respond to school shootings is imperative. Overwhelmingly, what educators are telling us is not what policymakers are telling us. And we should listen to educators.”

First Responder

Jeffco’s superintendent has some ideas about preventing school shootings — and none of them involve gun control or armed teachers

Jeffco superintendent Jason Glass at the Boys & Girls in Lakewood (Marissa Page, Chalkbeat).

Superintendent Jason Glass of the Jefferson County school district isn’t interested in talking about gun control in the wake of yet another deadly school shooting.

Home of Columbine High School, Jefferson County is no stranger to these tragedies or their aftermath, and Glass doesn’t think calls for restricting firearms will get any more traction this time than they have before. Nor is he interested in talking about arming teachers, a proposal he considers just as much of a political dead end.

“A solution is only a solution if we can actually enact it,” Glass wrote in a blog post published Monday. “We are not able to get either of these solutions passed into law so they have no impact.”

That doesn’t mean there’s nothing to talk about, he wrote. Glass lays out four ideas that he sees as more politically feasible and that might make a difference:

  • Put trained, armed law enforcement officials in every school
  • Increase funding and support for school mental health services
  • Create a federally funded center to study school safety and security
  • Change the layout of and access to school buildings to make them safer, much the way we’ve renovated airports, stadiums, and other public facilities

Glass describes these measures as “proactive, preventative, and reactive steps that would make a big impact in making our schools much safer than they are today.”

Some schools and districts already have an armed police presence on campus or offer mental health services, but Glass argues these efforts need more money, more support, and more cohesion.

“These solutions need to come from the federal level to create the scale and impact we really need,” he wrote. “Congress and the President need to act and now. … Flexibility and deference can be built into these solutions to accommodate differences across states and communities – but we have a national crisis on our hands and we have to start acting like it.”

Of course, even studying something, as Glass envisions this new center on school safety doing, can be political. Since 1996, the federal government, at the urging of the National Rifle Association, has placed tight restrictions on the ability of the Centers for Disease Control to study gun violence as a public health issue.

The blog post provoked a vigorous debate in the comments. Some called on Glass to join the national movement demanding more restrictions on firearms. This is not a time for “half measures,” one woman wrote.

Others said that turning schools into “fortresses” would work against their educational mission and questioned how well school resource officers could be trained to respond appropriately to students with special needs – or how fair the district-level threat assessment process is.

In the wake of another school shooting at Arapahoe High School in 2013, one largely forgotten outside the state, Colorado legislators passed a law that holds schools liable for missing warning signs in troubled students.

In an interview with Colorado Public Radio, Bill Woodward, a former police officer who trains schools in how to prevent violence, said more schools are doing threat assessments. But their success may require schools to take even more seriously the idea that their own students might be dangerous.

“I think the biggest barrier is the climate of the school, because I think sometimes schools are just thinking in terms of working with students, helping students out,” Woodward told CPR. “And sometimes when you’re looking at someone who’s made a threat, you have to change to the Secret Service model.”

Woodward said a more comprehensive solution may involve gun control. Schools can’t afford to wait, though.

“There is no silver bullet, speaking metaphorically, but I think gun law changes may well be needed,” he said. “I just think we have to do what we can do now, and we can do things now.”