OXFORD – He’s talkative, he’s fun and students love riding his bus. But break the rules, and driver Rich Hoeppner will send you to the “penalty box,” a front-row seat where he can keep an eye on you and where you are separated from your friends.
It’s a compassionate, but effective form of punishment. And if anyone knows about crime and punishment, it’s Hoeppner. He was a police officer for 25 years, retiring in 2005 as a lieutenant in command of more than 100 other men and women in Greenburg, NY, a community six miles north of the Bronx. Prior to becoming a lieutenant, he ran the department’s training unit as a sergeant and then headed the SWAT unit for 11 years. Hoeppner’s career was ended after reconstructive knee surgery, an injury he sustained responding to a 911 call.
“It was not my choice to retire,” he said. “But the department couldn’t be sure that I would make a complete recovery.”
Once he retired, Hoeppner did a lot of different jobs. He performed security background investigations for the federal government and then worked for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). But after more than two years at TSA, he tired of the long nights and weekends.
“I wanted to do something more local, and I didn’t want to work full-time,” he said, explaining that he and his wife, Mary, had relocated to Oxford in 2010 where they had friends and relatives.
“I had worked at summer camps with kids when I was a police officer, and I had three kids of my own, so I had worked with kids and I am a patient guy,” Hoeppner explained. “My wife suggested that I drive a school bus, and I knew two former police officers who were doing it and liked it.”
He applied to become an All-Star Transportation driver in June 2014, and when he completed his training in August, he was assigned to Bus 4 in Oxford. It’s the same bus he continues to drive today.
“Becoming a bus driver went smoother than I thought it would, but that’s not to say it’s been without stress. As long as you set ground rules, the kids generally fall in line. I’ve also gone out of my way to make the bus fun. I’ve come to know the parents of my students, and I want them to have peace of mind and comfort knowing that I am driving their kids. Some of the mothers have said that they are never going to let me retire.”
The penalty box is something that Hoeppner and two fourth-grade boys dreamed up during his first year as a driver. They picked a front-row seat and taped a cardboard Penalty Box sign over the seat.
“The purpose is not to embarrass students, but if they don’t follow the rules there has to be some consequence. Nobody wants to leave their friends and sit near the driver. In very short order, I found the penalty box to be one of the best ways to ensure the kids comply with the rules.”
The kids help police the rules, letting Rich know of violators. And when someone is found guilty, the kids often offer up a chant of “Penalty box, penalty box, penalty box,” until the offending student takes his or her seat in the box.
Students on his bus, with some input from Hoeppner, even created a song that they occasionally sing:
When you’re on your way to school, there is a golden rule.
You got to be good, you know you should.
If you act bad, soon you will be sad.
There’s a special place to go, you broke the golden rule on your way to school.
Reflecting on his decision to become a school bus driver, Hoeppner said, “It’s been enjoyable. I’ve met a lot of co-workers who have become good friends.”