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Bus vandalism threatens early childhood education programs

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FLATHEAD INDIAN RESERVATION – The gas lines on eight buses belonging to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes Early Childhood Services program have been cut since the school year started on Sept. 10. 

Gas has been stolen from the tanks of these parked buses at a variety of locations across the reservation. Buses have been damaged in Arlee, Polson, and St. Ignatius.

The buses transport young children to Head Start and Early Head Start programs. These kindergarten preparedness programs serve children from birth to five years old.

“They’re disrupting services to children,” Jeanne Christopher, director of CSKT ECS, said of the people who have vandalized the buses.

According to Christopher, security cameras monitor the areas where buses are parked. Several people have been captured on camera on the nights when the gas lines have been cut, and ECS has turned the images over to Tribal Police.

Christopher said the cut lines cause a variety of safety concerns. It has not been immediately apparent when gas lines have been cut, so drivers have started to drive buses with cut lines. The buses stop running after a short distance, stranding drivers and students. Buses have been towed to repair shops, at significant expense to the ECS program.

According to Christopher, another concern is that drivers have filled their gas tanks, unaware that the gas line is severed. This causes gas to run onto the ground at the gas station, causing a hazard. 

The cost of towing, repairs, and replacing gas has been a significant strain on the ECS budget. The gas lines of two new buses were cut before they could be used this fall. 

Christopher said that if the problem persists, bussing children to early childhood classes might become financially unviable. She said that discontinuing bus service could significantly reduce the impact of ECS programs.

“If we didn’t have the buses, many children wouldn’t get to their programs,” Christopher said. “Attendance is something we try hard to work on because we want children to be kindergarten ready.”

Anyone who has information about the incidents or the perpetrators should contact Tribal Police at 406-675-4700 or the Lake County Sherriff’s Office at 406-883-7301. Jeanne Christopher would also like people to contact her with information at 406-745-4509. “I want the community to understand the importance of children attending our programs. I want community to look out for us,” Christopher said.

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