School bus drivers are being ''hit, attacked and verbally abused'' by unruly kids, according to the union representing them.
First Union has spoken out about the issue along with parents who claim children are crammed in buses leading to fighting and bullying.
Bus drivers also claim children are smoking, vaping and drinking alcohol on the buses.
Graham McKeane, of First Union, said most school bus drivers were aged over 65 and had to be caregivers, first aid responders and the "police" while getting children to and from school safely.
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He was aware of bus drivers who had been ''hit, attacked and verbally abused by kids on school buses''.
''They can't kick kids off the bus, that is illegal, you can't leave them stranded on the side of the road which is fair enough. But you have these people in their twilight years having to deal with incidences and some of these kids are big and strong.''
McKeane also said school bus drivers were ''paid crap'' with rates in the $18 per hour range but were shouldering huge responsibilities.
Three Bay of Plenty bus drivers, who asked not to be named, spoke of the issues they had experienced.
One said the police had been called to diffuse one incident and children were ''not afraid to retaliate and had no respect''.
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A second driver, aged 67, said he was subjected to a ''brown eye'' from one student while exiting the bus and another questioned whether dealing with the children's behaviour was worth the $18 an hour and working a split shift.
The Western Bay of Plenty Principals' Association said the problems did not stop on the bus but carried on inside the school gates.
Shane Cunliffe of the association said society was having to deal with a real shift in behaviour.
''We are seeing a significant rise in mental health-related issues and these aren't being identified or supported prior to a tamariki's school life."
He said who was responsible for the students was a grey area once they were on the school bus.
"The accountability does lie with the school, the parent and the bus company too. It's a societal problem and we need to support those children together."
Tauranga parent Laura Mehalski said overcrowding on the buses was a problem.
"Of course there is going to be a lot of bad behaviour in this kind of overcrowded environment due to them being uncomfortable and overheating."
Another mother, who chose not to be named for fear of her son being bullied, said it was not uncommon for the bus driver to stop multiple times and ask students to stop fighting, swearing, pushing and shoving.
"I know parents driving their kids in because they're scared to go on the bus, it is defeating the point of the free school buses."
Parent Rora Arnott, who is also a primary school bus driver and teacher aide at Lake Rerewhakaaitu School, said she did not have any ongoing behavioural issues on the bus she drives.
"I love driving the bus. My mum used to do the same run here but she died 18 years ago. Now I have taken over the run she did."
However, Arnott's teenage daughter takes a different bus in and out of Rotorua to go to high school and hears about drivers having a hard time.
"My daughter gets frustrated when drivers have to put up with kids who vape and don't want to stop bad behaviour. She respects the fact that it's a privilege for them to catch the bus."
Arnott said passenger distractions made it very hard for drivers to do their job.
"We are still watching, but first and foremost we are driving."
The Bay of Plenty Regional Council said it had not received any complaints of drivers being assaulted.
General manager of strategy and science Namouta Poutasi said safety was paramount and any bus operator had the right to refuse to carry a passenger if they believed that passenger was a danger to the safe operation of the vehicle.
The council paid three bus contractors a share of $3 million in Tauranga this year to run the school bus services.
"When we are told of incidents involving verbal abuse we work with the school that the child attends and the operator who provides that service for us, to resolve the issue. This is usually a verbal warning in the first instance, but can be escalated to the child's parents and may result in a temporary stand-down period."
Every bus was assessed by the NZ Transport Agency and would have a different legal loading limit Poutasi said but could range from 55 to 77 students.
The Ministry for Education declined to comment on the issues raised unless this newspaper revealed the bus routes. The Bay of Plenty Times would not disclose this information because it could identify the bus drivers who had spoken out on the condition of anonymity.
A spokeswoman said the ministry had contracts with four bus companies in Tauranga and Rotorua and would not reveal what these contracts were worth because ''we are currently preparing to tender these routes''.
The bus companies declined to respond to questions.