Using Security Arguments to Further Agenda

I’ve often said that security discussions are rarely about security. Here’s a story that illustrates that.

A New Jersey mother doesn’t like her child’s school bus stopping at McDonald’s on Friday mornings. Apparently unable to come up with a cogent argument against these stops (which seems odd to me, honestly, as I can think of several), she invokes movie-plot security threats:

“I think they all like it,” Tyler [the mother] said. “They are anywhere from 9th to 12th graders. They don’t really think about the point that it could be a dangerous situation. They just think it’s breakfast.”

Tyler wants the stops to, well, stop before a student is hit by someone speeding into the drive-thru or before a robbery occurs and her son and other students are inside.

Posted on November 2, 2005 at 2:13 PM24 Comments


Ed T. November 2, 2005 2:47 PM

Slightly OT, but if the parent is so worried about her precious offspring’s safety, she might want to lobby for mandatory use of seat belts and a ban on students standing while the school bus is in motion — both of which have been issues since the days I rode the bus (and even before.)

I think a traffic accident is much more likely to happen than one of the kiddoes getting run over by a speeding driver — unless, of course, the driver just left the drive-thru with a cup of hot coffee, which spilled on his lap, resulting in him mashing on the accelerator as a reflexive action… (great balls o’ fire! 😉


uk_perspective November 2, 2005 2:59 PM

I too have noticed this, utilsing tobo topics to promote individuals political goals, or ambitions, a fact of life of course. Networking – hm reminds me of a Ross Anderson paper…

Avery November 2, 2005 3:38 PM

In every organization I’ve ever been involved in there was always someone who had dire warnings about the terrible risks or legal liability inherent in some plan or another. I’ve usually dismissed these people as attention seekers out to prove how clever they are by spotting the dangers that we’re all to blind to see. That doesn’t make them any less of a pain, though.

And in the time it takes you to put together an argument that Oasama bin Laden is not planning to blow up the Holly Hills Baptist Church annual chicken dinner, they can come up with equally terrible and unlikely scenarios.

antibozo November 2, 2005 3:45 PM

I’m inclined to agree with the mother–not so much that such a scenario is likely as that perhaps she’s pointing out that the school bus has an obligation to get the kids from the appointed stop to the school, and stopping at a restaurant on the way–effectively an unauthorized field trip–is not part of that mission. That is, I would see this not as someone invoking a dire movie plot threat, but as an attempt to clue the administrators in that they’re creating opportunities for accidents or misdeeds to occur outside the perimeter of the school or its transport. If something tragic does happen, they’re going to look like idiots.

It’s an issue of policy and procedure.

antibozo November 2, 2005 3:56 PM

On further reflection, I’m really surprised to see Dr Schneier point this story out as illustrative of anything. Tyler is clear that “A bus driver is supposed to stay on one route.”

The comment at the very end of the article, which Dr Schneier compares to a movie plot threat, isn’t even a direct quote of the mother; instead it is the staff reporter (who doesn’t even know what “beg the question” means) paraphrasing. And a movie about someone being hit by a car in a drive-thru, well, that would be pretty dull by most standards. I’m sure there are much better examples of the phenomenon that Dr Schneier is talking about.

jammit November 2, 2005 4:01 PM

I may have to agree with the mom on this one. It seems the bus was making an unscheduled stop and nobody seemed to listen to her, so she pulled out every trick and started whining about terrorists, kids getting run over by sleepy motorists, and kids getting in the way of the occasional crazy guy with an AK47. I never really thought about it, but an unscheduled stop is not that good of an idea. Any hijack of a bus (which has happened a few times) would be more difficult to track/catch if the bus went off track. Maybe if the bus driver (if he hasn’t already done so) called in on his radio or told the school principal beforehand about his quick stop this wouldn’t be so bad. I remember when I was taking the school bus the bus driver called in on a radio whenever anything out of the ordinary happened, like when the bus is running slow, or when some kid wasn’t at their stop.

mark November 2, 2005 5:20 PM

My favorite example of this was the Chicago Transit Authority’s campain immediately after the WTC attacks. They had signs that were about train security. They encouraged passengers to report real safety risks (like unattended packages) as well as more curious ‘threats’ (like eating and drinking on the train).

Someone must have complained because these signs disappeared in a few months to be replaced by signs that didn’t mix rider ettiquette with serious security risks.

parent_of_three_riders November 2, 2005 5:29 PM

I have three kids (1st, 4th, 6th grades) who ride a bus.
Speaking as a elementary school parent, I expect any schoolbus to follow the same route each day with no unplanned stops.
Speaking as someone who has worked with high school students, a McDonalds stop, sounds like a excellent way of ensuring order on the bus.
For high school aged kids, I do not have a problem with a McDonalds stop as long as it does not make the students late.
And, by the way, you will almost always have a parent making an irrational argument to justify changing something. This goes to the poster talking about seat-belts, several studies have shown that the majority of injuries that occur on a school bus would not be prevented or less severe if the students had been buckled.

antibozo November 2, 2005 5:48 PM

“This goes to the poster talking about seat-belts, several studies have shown that the majority of injuries that occur on a school bus would not be prevented or less severe if the students had been buckled.”

What about the minority that would? It’s not like wearing a seatbelt is some terrible hardship–it’s mandatory in many (most?) states, at least for people in a front seat. The question is whether the studies show that more injuries would be exacerbated than mitigated by seatbelts.

I don’t know why you would exempt high-school-aged kids from the expectation that their school bus follow a strict route. When the agents of the state take your kid, they need to know where the kid is at all times, period. It doesn’t matter how old the kid is.

Anonymous November 2, 2005 8:45 PM

“When the agents of the state take your kid, they need to know where the kid is at all times, period.”

Then don’t hand over your child(ren) to these “agents of the state.” Take them to school yourself, and pick them up again. And the idea that school buses must always follow the same route is somewhat unrealistic – all sorts of things can come up that make minor changes helpful. If the children are at school on time, then all’s right with the world.

But you’d think that they’d give the bus driver a medal – getting high school kids up and moving 15 minutes early of their own volition? That’s pretty amazing.

Random November 2, 2005 8:55 PM

The point where the mother says, quote “They don’t really think about the point that it could be a dangerous situation,” is I think what Dr. Schneier is referencing here. I doubt that there’s anything really dangerous about a schoolbus route running 15 minutes early. And it’s clear that some of the parents, like Mrs. Tyler’s neighbor knew about, and at least tacitly approved of, the McDonald’s stops. Mrs. Tyler is attempting to scare them into opposing them, using their children’s security as a threat. While is this a failt trivial example, it does illustrate something. When random members of the public take to using security threats to try to influence each other – why are we surprised when public officials do it. Where do you think public officials come from, anayway?

antibozo November 2, 2005 11:59 PM

Anonymous’s post:

“Then don’t hand over your child(ren) to these ‘agents of the state.’ Take them to school yourself, and pick them up again.”

You’re missing the point. It doesn’t matter if I take the kids to school if the school is lackadaisical about custody. It doesn’t matter if it happens on the bus on the way to school or during class in school. If they take custody, they’re responsible for maintaining it until they give it back to the parents. If they willfully abandon that responsibility despite my explicit request, I’ll hold them accountable.

Random’s post:

“And it’s clear that some of the parents, like Mrs. Tyler’s neighbor knew about, and at least tacitly approved of, the McDonald’s stops. Mrs. Tyler is attempting to scare them into opposing them, using their children’s security as a threat.”

I disagree. My view is that Tyler is trying to get the school officials, not the other parents, to recognize that they are deviating from their procedures and not properly maintaining custody of the children. If something happens in or around the McDonalds, the officials could be liable whereas they would be protected by procedure if the children were on the bus where they are supposed to be.

This is no different from the traditional fears of our litigious society; it’s not an example of the new use of terror to mold public opinion. Hell, she’s just talking about the drive-thru, a store robbery–there’s no suggestion of a terrorist attack. Who knows, maybe that particular drive-thru is especially dangerous; maybe she saw a kid almost get hit; maybe the restaurant has a history of robberies. Maybe she didn’t say anything remotely like it–again, it’s not a direct quote. Have you ever been paraphrased by a rookie journalist? It’s amazing what they come up with.

I’m bothering with all this because I think it’s thoughtless to dismiss this woman’s concern on the grounds that it’s some sort of movie plot threat–it isn’t that at all by my reading.

csrster November 3, 2005 1:56 AM

Taking them by the same route every day ? Have you any idea how dangerous that is!!?!! You’re just asking to have the entire busload kidnapped by a group of hash-crazed Ingushetian irredentists! Insist that the school-district use a different route every day, repaint the bus in randomly-chosen colours and, above all, change the destination every day as well. If you ask me, and even if you don’t, making the locations of schools public information is the worst security risk this country has ever allowed. Our Public Schools should be Secret Schools. Protect the Children!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

JohnJ November 3, 2005 7:22 AM

@Anonymous: “If the children are at school on time, then all’s right with the world.”

OK, but to accomodate the stop at McD’s, the kids have to be picked up earlier than they would otherwise need to be. Thus, the bus runs earlier than necessary, forcing students and parents to get up earlier.

I agree with the earlier poster who said this was in effect an unauthorized field trip. The school system is liable for whatever may happen and no liability waivers have been signed. I wonder what the school’s risk management staff would say to that.

ARL November 3, 2005 7:30 AM

Appeal to Consequences.

Sure there are problems with the stops, but the issue is Mom is looking for some pretty wild results to try and make her point.

Ed T. November 3, 2005 8:36 AM

Several comments:

1) I agree that the mom has a valid concern. I wouldn’t be happy if I found out my kid’s school bus were making stops at McD’s (or any other place that it wasn’t supposed to) en route to/from the school. I just think (as I suspect Bruce did, based on his posting) that she could have come up with better arguments than she did.

2) While some deviations from a given route can be expected (due to road/traffic conditions, detours, etc.) normally a school bus (like a city bus, or an airplane) follows an established path, to ensure that it stops at all the places it is supposed to.

3) I don’t know about “studies” showing the effects of wearing seat belts on board a bus: however, if it is mandatory for a child to wear a seat belt in a car, then why is it acceptable for this not to even be an option on a school bus? Even worse, why is it acceptable for a school bus (or even a city bus) to be in motion, while passengers are standing? These vehicles can travel at highway speeds (up to 45-60 MPH), and even at speeds like 25-30 MPH the sudden stop of a collision will send loose objects flying around — and a person weighing in excess (sometimes well in excess) of 100 lbs travelling at 30 MPH is going to hurt something when it hits.

Again, I have no problem with the mom being opposed to the bus making the stop — but if she is going to make her case based on “safety” or “security”, then she needs to have her ducks in a row, so to speak.


another_bruce November 3, 2005 9:46 AM

the corporate camel has his nose under the government tent again. the school and all its trappings, including the bus and the bus driver, are public institutions designed for a specific public purpose, in this case getting kids to school, not filling them up with bland corporate food first. i’ll bet a good lawyer could help the mother in this story. if it were my kid, the show would be over by now.

RvnPhnx November 3, 2005 10:21 AM

Ok, there is a lot of bullshit reasoning going on here……
#1, The Custody Argument: I’ve got news for all of you claiming to be parents out there, but what your child does–no matter whom they may be with–is your problem and not theirs (school officials, school bus drivers) in this country. Also, schools do not tacitly or otherwise have to ever guarantee to anyone where specifically any one student may be. When the school sends students on an academically sanctioned field trip the reason that a permission form is required is because the students will be doing something out of the norm which the parents MUST be able to say yes or no to by law and because students are usually minors and may be transported across state lines in the course of the field trip, as the case may be. Remember, the parent is the provider of authority–not the school. This means that the custody argument fails.
#2 Schools and Food: Schools in the USA are not required to offer any food to students other than: School Lunch, Subsidized School Lunch, and Subsidized School Breakfast (unless the state can afford to require more than that–something I don’t know of ever happening). Some schools can afford to offer breakfast for the general student/staff populous, but they are increasingly few and far between. Based on this, and the busy schedule of many parents, it makes sense that some schools would ALLOW the bus company to add to the route of one or several busses a breakfast stop. This is not something that just happens on a whim. (Which brings me to…..)
#3 School Bus Routes: Almost everywhere in the USA the school bus routes (more like route templates) are approved by either the school board, the superintendent’s office, the principal’s office, the town offices, or the local school administrative unit of the state (or some combination of these) and the management of whomever runs the busses. If this stop is indeed official then it made it past one or more of the above (and likely a couple of lawers in the process). If any argument for change is going to be made it will need to be solid and well based on facts.
#4 The Seatbelt rap: Seatbelts are a real pain in the butt to implement on school busses, and would not have a whole hey of a lot of effect in a properly loaded bus unless it slammed into something sideways or rolled over (in which case the belts may actually be more dangerous). Remember in school busses the number of passengers allowed varies based on the age (and by supposition the average size) of the passengers (which is why installing seatbelts and configuring them is a real pain), and that school busses are designed NOT TO HAVE ACTIVE RESTRAINTS (aka. seatbelts). This is why passengers are supposed to sit facing forwards, etc. As for people walking around on a bus–this is technically prohibited to begin with (standing still on a municipal bus is becoming more and more rare over time). All school busses are technically required to wait until all passengers are seated before begining to move (and a whole host of other things). The only reason that we tolerate these things at all is becase the probability of getting into the type of accident that would make doing this in a personal automobile dangerous is so much more rare in a public vehicle operated by a trained professional.

Pavel November 3, 2005 12:15 PM

This is my favorite:

[A discussion of a proposed ban on panhandling in Atlanta, CNN, SHOW: LIVE FROM… 1:00 PM EST, August 23, 2005 Tuesday]

MARTHA ZOLLER, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: […] al Qaeda supposedly is going to use homeless people, because they can get closer to buildings. I think it’s a security issue and I think there’s some people that won’t benefit from it, but that overall, the safety is the key concern.

Bruce Schneier November 3, 2005 5:21 PM

“Sure there are problems with the stops, but the issue is Mom is looking for some pretty wild results to try and make her point.”

That’s exactly my point. Whether the stops are a good idea or not is not the issue; inventing scary scurity stories is.

paul November 4, 2005 8:19 AM

The elephant in the room, of course, is stopping at a chain restaurant for expensive, unhealthy food and a big dose of carbonated sugar (or superheated coffee, if the kids prefer their damage in the form of skin grafts). I suspect that neither the mother nor the paper wants to be seen as dissing an american institution, or as damaging the nation’s economy by suggesting that the kids could spend less money for better breakfasts (and lunches) elsewhere. Hence the resort to unlikelihoods.

notbob November 4, 2005 8:58 AM

@antibozo – “What about the minority that would? It’s not like wearing a seatbelt is some terrible hardship” – possibly not, but beware getting close to the limitation of freedom issue; for example, is mandatory wearing of cycle (or motorcycle) helmets really necessary, where it doesn’t risk anyone except the person making the choice. It could (perhaps fairly) be argued that in this case there is enough risk of hurting others, or that the people making the decision are incapable of making it taking enough account of others, but beware the implicit assumption that because something doesn’t incovenience you that it is reasonable to mandate it for everyone….

@paul – yes is obviously an food quality issue in disguise; I thought that was Bruce’s point to begin with…


parent_of_three_riders November 4, 2005 10:13 AM

I apologize for not being more clear about my original comment about seatbelt usage.
Yes, installing seatbelts on school buses would prevent deaths and injuries. According to a paper written by the “Transportation Research Board of the National Research Council”, “Improving School Bus Safety”, installing seat belts in all school buses would eliminate one death and several dozen injuries per year.
This would cost about $2000 per bus to install belts and about $400 per bus on an annual basis to implement and would put a school bus driver in the role of checking seat belts.
Again, belts in school bus’s , comes down to balancing costs against risks. Pointing out the possibility of an injury or death without considering the costs of preventing this is an example of an irrational argument.

DarkFire November 7, 2005 12:47 PM

I can’t help but wonder why mum can’t drive said child to school herself, given her apparent level of concern regarding the child’s safety…

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