Friday, January 26, 2007

TOP STORY >>Are our children safe?

Leader staff writer

A parent who witnessed the aftermath of a wreck involving a school bus, a tractor-trailer rig and a van on Hwy. 31 in Austin Wednesday told The Leader she doesn’t let her children ride a school bus because she fears for her children’s safety.

“When I was a child I always went to school on a bus,” the parent said. “I know all too well what children do on buses when they cannot be watched closely. I worry about my kids getting hurt by older kids or worse, being killed by people who do not obey the laws requiring them to stop when buses are letting children on and off.”

Many parents don’t have the luxury of driving their own children to school. On their behalf, The Leader asked local school districts how they handle bus safety.

In Cabot there are approximately 9,006 children enrolled in the district with almost 5,500 riding school buses to and from school.

Jim Dalton, assistant superintendent of the district, says a child’s safety is both a parental and school official issue.

“We cannot be held responsible for a child before they get on our bus, of course,” he said. “We encourage parents to stay with their children at all times before they get on a bus in the morning and be there with them when they get off in the afternoon. A child should never be allowed to stand at a bus stop by themselves.”

Dalton also encouraged community monitoring.

“Some parents must leave before their children are picked up and we understand that but they still need to take responsibility,” he said. “I think it is a good idea for a group of neighbors to get together and identify at least one person who can monitor children at a bus stop to help keep them safe. This way children are never alone and it reduces the chances of abductions and injuries.”

Dalton said parents need to be very active in teaching their children safety rules. “Parents should talk to their kids about how to cross a road and to watch for their bus driver’s signal before crossing a road,” he said.

Janis Ellis, who has been testing school bus drivers from around the state since 1999, has been with the Cabot School District since 1991. She drove a school bus in the past but now handles maintenance and construction for the Cabot district in addition to testing bus drivers.

“Our drivers must undergo a four-part written test and then 24 hours of driving tests,” Ellis said. “If a driver seems weak in one area we will give more training until we know they can handle the job. They also must ride with another driver to learn stops and such before they are allowed to get out there by themselves.”

Ellis said there are things drivers learn to help keep children safe while in their care.

“We train bus drivers to count each child who gets off a bus so if they don’t see one of them cross they know to stay there until they see the child,” Ellis said. “Also all children are required to stay seated and never get up until the bus comes to a complete stop and the driver is never to take off until every child is seated.”

Ellis said all Cabot drivers are supplied with cell phones in case a situation arises with unruly children or an accident occurs.
Charlie Donham is the transportation director with the Cabot district. He plans to hold a special safety meeting dealing with emergencies on Tuesday for school bus drivers. He said it is important to cover these issues and that he holds regular safety meetings.

“If you interview any parent they will say they want safety first out of the school district,” Donham said. “We are in the process of changing some routes right now to make them safer.

“We are deciding where the safest place is to stop for children to get on and off a bus. Then we will make adjustments as needed.”

Donham said the Cabot district has great bus drivers who care about their riders and that for the most part the parents all support them and do their part to keep things safe too.

“If we do have an issue with a child we call the parents,” he said. “They are generally helpful. But if a child needs more discipline we can kick them off the bus or even give licks.”

Gina Hicks, who drives bus No. 113 in Cabot, recently observed a fatal accident and she says people should pay closer attention to signal lights and signage while on the roadways.

“I think if people would stop and think when they see a bus, ‘That could be my child getting on that bus’ they might slow down and even stop and have more concern for others than they show,” she said.

She said one parent in the district is trying to get the state to put up school bus stop signs to help warn motorists of the stops. She hopes to see these in the near future, she said.

Pulaski County Special School District
Pulaski County Special School District buses run about 272 routes and it takes about 400 people to keep that many routes in place, according to Brad Montgomery, director of transportation for PCSSD. He said earlier that his department has a shortage of seven to 10 employees in the Jacksonville area.

Still Montgomery strives for safety. “We’ve done a lot over the past two years,” he says.

PCSSD employees attend an annual seminar focusing on the latest techniques in school bus safety.

Another way of keeping safety first is a recently mandated school bus inspection statewide. Those inspections are conducted randomly, not by scheduling a date and time, he said.

School bus drivers’ jobs were recently made easier with a change in reporting “stop-arm” crossing violators. Instead of having to go to the Pulaski County prosecuting attorney’s office to swear out a warrant against violators, bus drivers are supplied with forms to fill out with information about the violators. The forms are sent by fax to the prosecutor’s office which can send out a letter to violators warning them of the consequences for failing to stop and wait until the stop-arm crossing guard is rescinded.

In February, the PCSSD will conduct an in-service focusing on safety issues confronted by school bus drivers. The four-hour meeting is held twice during the school year, according to Montgomery.

Montgomery remembered a student who was recently killed while crossing a roadway after getting off a school bus. “Every time something like this happens, it is so sad,” he said. On Jan. 12, Elizabeth Cimprich, 14-years-old, lost her life while crossing the road near Pine Bluff. According to the Arkansas State Police fatality summary, the accident took place along Hwy. 79 South after she had exited a school bus.

Lonoke School District
In the Lonoke School District, where the bus supervisor was driving a route to replace a driver out sick, the only recent accident was a minor one when a bus coming around a curve collided with a car, but there were no personal injuries, according to Kathy Halford, the district secretary.

She said she didn’t know of any personal-injury accidents in recent years.

After a pre-K child was left on a bus about two years ago, the district installed child-alert buzzers on all buses. At the end of the route, when the driver turns the bus off, an alarm goes off and the driver must walk to the back of the bus to turn it off, ensuring that no children are left behind, Halford said. She wasn’t sure how many of the district’s 1,850 students ride the bus, but the district maintains 18 bus routes. The district uses seat belts only in its special-needs buses, she said.

The district doesn’t have much turnover among bus drivers either. They are experienced and have gone through training and testing. The state does at least one in-service safety workshop a year that these bus drivers attend.

Drivers inspect their buses daily and all buses are on a regular maintenance schedule.

“The state just finished inspecting our buses,” she added.

Beebe school district
Beebe School District has 2,700 students and counting the 450 or so who are shuttled to the middle school at McRae every day, 2,500 of them ride buses.

Hal Crisco, the assistant superintendent who oversees transportation, said this week that safety is his main concern.
“School buses are one of the safest places to be. It’s the loading and unloading that’s the concern,” said Crisco, who also drove a bus for many years.

Drivers for Beebe School District are instructed to never open the door to let children off until they are certain that traffic is stopped in all directions, he said.

Recently, the bus that runs the Highway 64 route was equipped with extra flashers to make it more visible.

Additionally, drivers won’t let small children off the bus when it is apparent that no one is home to look after them.
Most of the time, the children alert the driver that no one is home, he said. But sometimes the drivers will notice the absence of cars and take the children back to school instead of letting them off.

John Hofheimer, Peg Kenyon and Joan McCoy contributed to this story.