School bus drivers serve students as guardians, friends

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RUTLAND, Vt. (AP) — If the school is warm and ready, so too is the wave of yellow school buses carrying Rutland County's children safely to and from school.

"We, as bus drivers — we're the beginning of their day and the end of their day," said Mike Lee, driver for Otter Valley Unified Union School District. "They spend two hours with you, depending on how long they have to ride. They trust you. They develop a feeling of safety."

Becoming a bus driver may not require an inherent passion for "school bus yellow," the federally regulated color for all school buses, or a penchant for driving large vehicles, but they become the surrogate parents, friends and guardians of the thousands of children they ferry every day.

The journey started 32 years ago for Katrina Fielder, a driver for the district. Her son was going into kindergarten and she needed a job.

"You feel like they're your kids and a part of your family," Fielder said. "They love you. They really do."

For some, the job is inherited.

"It's in my family," said Rutland City driver Marcia McCormack. "My father drove public transit for 30 years."

"My father owned the buses in the town of Sherburne, which is now Killington," said Becky Congdon, transportation director for OVUUSD. "Four out of five of us drove. It was kind of a part of growing up ... I like to say I bleed yellow."

No matter how they got behind the wheel, drivers take their responsibility for the children, who number anywhere from 50 to 70 per bus, very seriously.

"We're up early, into the shop. We pre-trip the bus, then off we go," said Rutland City driver Ed Dorman. "You have to make it safe for all the kids first."

Pre-tripping for Rutland City Public Schools means a 20-minute walkthrough to check the lights, windows, doors, tires and body of the vehicle, and make certain the bus is clean and secure.

The drivers know every name, every house, every street. They know the kids' favorite foods and subjects in school, who can sit next to whom, and often, what's waiting for them when they get off the bus.

"I place a face with a stop," Dorman said. "I can see a kid, and I can tell where he or she gets off. If I know their names, it's because they got in trouble."

"One kid wanted to ask a girl to the prom and he needed $10, so I gave it to him," said Rutland City driver Ray Dean.

And the drivers prepare well for their duties as guardians on the road — they are subjected to random drug testing, scans for peripheral vision, coordination and blood pressure, Dorman said.

But that's nothing compared to the scrutiny of their passengers, said James Courcelle, now in his fifth year driving for Rutland City Public Schools.

"Oh, they let me know when I go the wrong way," said Courcelle, "You basically have 50 back-seat drivers."

Each school-bus driver trains their children to respond to their signals before coming toward them and boarding the bus, so they know not to run out into the middle of a road, Lee said.

"They always wait for me to give them the thumbs up," Lee said. "We must be vigilant training these children."

"They're very trusting," Congdon said. "They think, 'the driver's going to protect us. Nothing's going to happen.'"

But even with the warning signals, danger looms when drivers are in a hurry and want nothing more than to pass by a bus despite the stop signal and flashing lights.

Though there are cameras that the drivers use to take photographs of operators who try to speed by, the bus drivers have to take note of every detail of the offending vehicle in order for the driver to be cited.

"Sometimes I think that people don't stop to think, 'this could be the school bus that my kids are on,'" said OVUUSD driver Brian Blair.

Congdon said attorneys can argue against a ticket, a conviction that yields a fine and 5 points on a license, even with eyewitness testimony provided, if the bus isn't specifically described as black and yellow with a functioning eight-light system

"That's a bit of a window," Congdon said. "There's a whole lot of information that has to get in that split second ... Ticket writing was going nowhere: If we miss a word in our write-up, then the ticket gets thrown out."

Congdon said she's dealt with fender benders and close calls before, including one where a girl in elementary school was almost hit in Randolph.

"There was nothing I could do," Congdon said. "I couldn't stop her ... I put those air horns on and the car just sped up ... her little hair just blew, she was on the white line and the car blew right through us."

Several years ago, Congdon said she decided to appeal to the state to get additional LED lights installed on eight of their buses after one close call almost three years ago. One of their buses on Route 4 by Stockbridge Road was passed by a car and motorcycle speeding through while students were in the stairwell of the bus.

"I drive Route 7, and that's a very dangerous highway," Lee said. "I feel these lights have added another layer of visibility. I used to have an average of 7-10 people per week running our red lights."

In November, Congdon said, Indiana and Mississippi lost five children in one week due to speeding drivers, including a pair of 6-year-old twins and their 9-year-old sister, who were killed by a 25-year-old in a pickup.

"It's an epidemic," Lee said. "It's getting worse ... and we are carrying precious cargo. These are peoples' children."

"We just want something to stick," Congdon said. "Instead of going to court and hearing the judge say 'Is the fine going to be a hardship?' would it be a hardship to tell a family their kid is dead?"

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Online: https://bit.ly/2EYpcUv

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Information from: Rutland Herald, http://www.rutlandherald.com/


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