WASHINGTON — Imagine this nightmare scenario: Three bombs explode simultaneously, each on a different school bus in a different city across the country.
"Imagine the economic impact if parents weren't confident their children would be secure when they take the bus to school," said Derek Graham, the president of a national group of school transportation directors and the transportation chief for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. "The nation's school bus system is the largest system of public transportation. It's just very vulnerable. We've been concerned about that for quite some time."
That's why school bus drivers are being trained to spot suspicious activity and why, in some districts, drivers peek under their buses every morning in search of anything odd.
Graham and other school transportation leaders fear that the federal government isn't taking their concerns about terrorism seriously, however.
The federal Transportation Security Administration has yet to begin a safety assessment that Congress ordered in August. Though the agency has poured billions of dollars into shoring up security for ports, railways, motor coaches and the air industry in the past six years, it's done little for the millions of children who ride school buses, school leaders said.
"We've met with them several times over the last several years, and we've not seen much in the way of movement," said John Green, the transportation chief for the California Department of Education, which carries nearly a million students a day. "The school transportation industry shouldn't be left out as an afterthought."
In August, legislation signed by President Bush gave the TSA, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security, a year to develop a national assessment of school bus security.
Reps. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, and Bob Etheridge, D-N.C., a committee member, learned last week that the TSA has yet to develop a plan for how to go about the assessment.
"School buses have always been soft targets," said Etheridge, who pushed to have the study included in the 9/11 Commission legislation passed last year. "I'm kind of disappointed. In just a few months we expect this report, and I don't see the kind of urgency."
Christopher White, a spokesman for the TSA, said the study would be completed on time.
"It is important to evaluate any transportation sector in the context of the overall threat picture," White said, noting that the agency has several potential transportation-system targets that it has to think about protecting.
Internationally, only the United States and Canada have major school bus systems for children. Though there haven't been any terrorist attacks, there have been hijackings and hostage situations over the years.
In other countries, city buses have long been targets of terrorist bombings.
What could come out of the federal transportation agency's study remains unclear. Graham, Etheridge and others said they hoped for guidelines on how systems could shield themselves. Suggestions could include fenced-in yards, security cameras or global-positioning systems aboard buses and crisis training for drivers.
"We all know the vulnerability," Green said. "I don't want to scare people. I don't want to have bus drivers calling police all the time and having the SWAT team respond. But I want them to be more aware."
Security improvements cost money, but Etheridge said he had no fears that the legislation would, in the end, force cash-strapped school districts to spend more.
"There are a lot of things (school bus systems) can implement within the resources they may have," Etheridge said. "Or they can pool resources within districts or regions."