School bus drivers make safety first priority

Driving precious cargo

Kristen Lawrence welcomes students on the bus home from school on Wednesday, Feb. 7. (L-R): Makenzie Canova, Ryan Garcia, Nicholas Padilla and Adisynne Franchello. (Jason Wheeler/Courier)

Kristen Lawrence welcomes students on the bus home from school on Wednesday, Feb. 7. (L-R): Makenzie Canova, Ryan Garcia, Nicholas Padilla and Adisynne Franchello. (Jason Wheeler/Courier)

Challenges bus drivers face

Driving a school bus is a job that involves keeping a careful eye on the kids, as well as on the route. But many of the challenges drivers face aren’t about the kids or the roads, either. A 2015 article by Kim Morrison, published on www.schoolbusflee..., noted six challenges school bus drivers face and the key reasons they quit.

1) Low pay. School bus drivers earn less per hour than commercial bus drivers.

2) Limited hours. Taking children to school and bringing them home can mean there’s a limit to the number of hours drivers get. And extra work, such as school field trips, might pay less than the amount for driving regular routes

3) Part-timers. Working in the morning and afternoon might mean the drivers are only part-time employees, even if benefits are offered. Yet it’s hard to pick up another job because the hours are hard to work around.

4) Health care. Some bus drivers are offered health care and other benefits, but can’t afford the benefits due to their low wages and part-time hours. And if they do purchase insurance, deductions are likely to consume even more of their pay check.

5) Start-up costs. Drivers might have to come up with money for a pre-employment background check, drug test and a physical exam. Every new school bus driver pays for part or all of the costs.

6) Lack of support. Sometimes administrators don’t back up bus drivers when parents complain, and some polices don’t support drivers. Their work might not be appreciated, especially the oldest drivers. They face hurdles to get administrators to discipline kids for unsafe behavior.

Kristen Lawrence knows every child that comes on her bus. Keeping them safe is an absolute priority, she said.

“I like to make these kids feel like I see them; I know them,” she said. “They’re not just a number or a name; they’re children. Children are very accepting and innocent. They just assume you’re going to take care of them, and that’s OK because that’s what we do.”

Lawrence drives a school bus for Humboldt Unified School District with a route to and from Liberty Traditional School.

Drivers for HUSD go through an extensive training program before they’re capable of driving, said HUSD Transportation Director Kenneth Fox. The drivers are trained in CPR and first aid, get a physical exam every year and a personal fitness test every two years — in case they have to drag the kids out of the bus, Fox said.

It’s the same for bus drivers driving for Prescott Unified School District, said Transportation and Facilities Director Chris Larson. Drivers working for PUSD are constantly being trained on how to keep the kids safe, he said, adding that the drivers also have CPR training and physicals.

Faculty also stresses to the kids what proper behavior on the bus is, so the driver can better ensure the kids’ safety, Fox said. Once in a while, a principal will board the bus to make sure kids understand that the way they act on the bus should be the same as in the classroom, Larson said. It’s dangerous if the kids act up and the driver has to always look in the mirror, worrying about what the kids are doing while trying to keep their eyes on an unpredictable road, Fox said.

“You get 60 kids on that bus, and you get them all screaming and yelling, and you’re trying to concentrate on the road and traffic around you; sometimes they get pretty tense,” he said.

Sometimes, he said, the driver will “pull over, calm the bus down, and they’ll continue, so they don’t fight that. We encourage them to do that.”

Making sure the kids are safe on the buses starts before the bus reaches the school, according to both Fox and Larson. Every 6,000 miles, the bus gets a Department of Transportation inspection and an oil change, and the drivers also write up anything they might notice about the bus that concerns them, Fox said. If there’s something amiss, the mechanics go in and make sure the bus is in the condition it needs to be in to keep the kids safe, he said.

And when it snows, Larson drives the routes, himself, early in the morning, before the bus drivers drive those routes, he said. He makes sure each route is safe enough to drive, he said. And if a driver is unsure about a route’s safety, Larson reminds them that he’s already driven it that day, he said. In some cases, he’ll also ride on the bus to make sure the driver knows that he’s behind them, Larson added.

In interviews prior to hiring bus drivers, he asks questions about how they would handle kids’ safety, Larson added.

“We want to keep the kids safe from the time that they get on the bus until we drop them off at school and from the time that we pick them up at school and we drop them off at home,” he said. “We work really hard on that. We’re the first person that they see in the morning and the last person that they see [from their school] in the afternoon.”

Lawrence, the HUSD bus driver, mentioned that she has three grandchildren in the school system. She said treats every kid on her bus as if they were her grandchildren, as far as taking care of them on the bus and making sure they’re safe.

“I’m totally nuts about my grandchildren, and I want someone like me driving my grandchildren because I care about every single one of these kids,” she said. “I know how I feel. I assume every parent feels the same way about their kid. Therefore, I take care of them.”