Vandals and Thieves Are Targeting the Minibuses Used to Transport Portland’s Special Needs Students

The situation infuriates drivers, who have to walk the lots—often alone, in the dark—to pick up and drop off buses, which they regularly find ransacked.

Portland Public Schools keeps its fleet of yellow minibuses in the yard of an old grade school overlooking the Columbia River. The yard filled up long ago. Buses overflow into a nearby lot behind a city park.

The lots are secluded. Perfect for thieves, who for years have raided the buses for parts.

But it’s never been as bad as it is now. As vandalism skyrockets, emergency repairs are eating into the time that school district mechanics can spend maintaining the buses that transport Portland’s special needs kids to and from school.

Burglars strike almost daily, armed with saws, drills and rubber hoses, says Brandon Coonrod, the district’s assistant director of student transportation. They siphon gas, steal batteries, and hack off catalytic converters. The chain-link fences ringing the lots have proved little deterrence.

The situation infuriates drivers, who have to walk the lots—often alone, in the dark—to pick up and drop off buses, which they regularly find ransacked.

A neighboring bus lot owned by a PPS contractor has reduced vandalism by installing 10-foot electric fences. A proposal to build one for the district is mired in bureaucratic delays.

Vandalism is a familiar problem in Portland in 2022. Graffiti dots the city’s walls, and catalytic converter thieves stalk neighborhood streets. But the plight of the district’s special education buses is particularly frustrating, drivers argue, because it is preventable.

The district owns its own minibuses so it can provide superior service to its most needy students. But lax security at its bus yards is undermining that goal, drivers say. And because the district is self-insured, taxpayers are footing the bill.

“PPS yards are now an open house for thieves,” said Carol Heacock, one of the district’s bus drivers, at a recent school board meeting. “We need proper security to keep staff and students safe.”

Portland Public Schools has long contracted out most of its bus routes to a pair of private companies. But it has retained its fleet of school minibuses reasoning that special needs kids deserve drivers with special training.

For years, the district has been struggling with vandalism. It’s spent more than $200,000 on graffiti cleanup in the past two years alone, a spokesperson told WW in September.

The bus lots have been no exception. First, the target was batteries, a problem that “gradually increased” until the district began marking them with a unique identifier to “discourage resale,” according to an Oct. 13 district memo.

In 2019, the district conducted a “security audit” of its transportation facilities. According to the memo, it implemented many of the audit’s recommendations: improved lighting, overnight security and a “specialized mobile trailer” with surveillance cameras and motion detectors.

But, the district admits, none of these measures slowed the vandalism.

The surveillance tower wasn’t high enough to see over the roofs of the buses. Once, a thief stole the door off a district van and walked out of the facility right under the tower’s nose.

“It’s been a joke for a couple years now,” Coonrod says. He’s a former FedEx truck driver who now helps coordinate student transportation for the school district.

When COVID hit, the problem “escalated quickly.” Now, he says, “they’re cutting a new hole almost every night.”

Catalytic converters were a favorite target. Around 20 have been stolen this year alone. The district lost so many catalytic converters that it bought a $30,000 pipe bender to make repairs in-house.

After police cracked down on a major catalytic converter trafficking ring, thieves found a new target: gasoline.

Jason Carr, the district’s maintenance manager, ducked under a bus to point out multiple patches in its exposed gas tank. Thieves drill holes and collect the spurting fuel in buckets.

The district spends $15,000 to $25,000 on hired security guards each month. “And we’re still getting hit,” Coonrod says. He proposed upgrading to electric fencing but was told it would expose the district to unwanted liability.

“As a public entity with active parks next to our property, it would have been irresponsible and against code,” Sydney Kelly, a district spokeswoman, tells WW.

So the brazen thefts continued. One night in late April, someone stole a bus.

A thief hotwired it and plowed it through the lot’s locked gate. District officials tracked the bus down the next day thanks to a tip on Nextdoor. It was parked in a nearby neighborhood.

The lot has no CCTV or other video surveillance. But the buses do. Coonrod reviewed the footage and watched the burglar joyriding around North Portland, occasionally stopping to shoot off a few texts.

That wasn’t the end of the ordeal. The thief stole the bus’s radio and began butting in on dispatchers with obscenity-laced rants as kids on buses listened in, the driver Heacock says.

Drivers began fearing for their safety. Arriving in the morning, they found their buses ransacked.

The buses’ emergency exits, by design, do not lock. Vandals made good use of the vulnerability, stealing safety blankets from underneath the seats. Christine Lafonte took to bringing pepper spray on her morning route, until she was told it was against district rules to carry a weapon on district property.

Lafonte, flanked by two other drivers, brought their fears to the Portland Public Schools Board at its monthly meeting in October. A dozen other members of their union were in the audience, wearing bright yellow “Solidarity” shirts and waving “Stop the Ransacking” signs.

“Searching for an intruder, drug paraphernalia, needles and possible human defecation has become an unfortunate addition to our everyday pretrip bus inspections,” Lafonte told the board.

Bob Foster, a retired engineer who has spent four years driving PPS buses, slammed district administrators for ignoring the issue.

“It feels like ‘it is what it is’ is the existing attitude,” Foster said, noting that the district seemed willing to pay for the costs of fixing the vandalism but not the measures needed to stop it.

“What is the district’s tipping point?” he asked. “Hopefully, it’s not when someone is injured.”

Gary Hollands, the board’s vice chair, broke protocol to respond to the drivers’ concerns. “Yards across the state and the country are going through this same issue,” he said.

But not all of them, Coonrod says. First Student, a PPS contractor, operates a bus yard just down the street. It solved the vandalism problem by installing an electric fence, he adds.

The solar-powered fencing, designed by Amarok, certainly looks effective. The 10-foot fencing sits behind traditional barbed wire and delivers “intense but nonlethal 7,000-volt” electric shocks. The system is rented out by the month.

Amarok CFO Nathan Leaphart tells WW the South Carolina company is growing in Portland as transportation companies with outdoor lots look for ways to stop catalytic converter theft. It has over 6,000 customers nationwide.

After the drivers’ presentation, district officials scrambled to come up with a response. Two days later, they sent an email to the board addressing “security and safety concerns.” (The district spokeswoman said “the district had already taken action to address vandalism” prior to the drivers’ presentation.)

The memo listed the district’s previous failed efforts and offered rationales for the ongoing vandalism: “It is clear that the individuals committing these crimes are clever and determined and there is an abundance of them,” the letter said.

It offered a list of “current efforts under review,” including electric fencing. But, it notes, “upgraded fencing is expensive and a high need across the district.” (Coonrod says the city zoning code is also a hurdle.)

If the fence is approved, Coonrod says he’ll find room in the transportation department’s limited budget to pay for it. “The funds will have to come from somewhere,” he says. “We’ll scrimp and save.”