By COLLEEN MCCARTHY
Next week, schools all across the country will celebrate 2011 National School Bus Safety Week.
The theme this year is “Be Aware- Know the Danger Zone!” — an area 10 feet around the bus that students, bus drivers and other motorists should be aware of. The campaign aims to educate the public on school bus safety issues.
Over 60 percent of students in the Starkville School District ride the bus as their primary means of transportation to and from school. Ella Jefferson has been a bus driver for the district for 22 years. She says safety is her job’s biggest priority.
“The thing that I think is most important that children need to understand is that you don’t ask them not to stand, not to scream, not to be loud on the bus because you’re being mean or being ugly — you’re asking them to do this because then you’re able to do your job and able to focus on the road,” Jefferson said. “If they’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing, that helps you get from point A to point B.”
The district has 12 bus monitors who are able to handle any problems with the students and allow the driver to focus on the road. But with 60 buses in the district, monitors can’t be on every route. Drivers still need the children to follow the rules of the bus and behave correctly to avoid distractions.
“I believe in giving my children treats when they’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing. It’s about more than scolding the kids — it’s about showing them how they can be rewarded when they’re doing what they’re supposed to do,” Jefferson said. “You have to have order when you’re driving those buses. You can’t drive and focus on the road when you’ve got noise, when you’ve got kids standing up. You have to have a little order. Children feel safer on the bus when there is a little order.”
Assistant Superintendent Walter Gonsoulin said having a good bus driver was the first line of defense against bus safety issues. The drivers receive regular training on how to handle a variety of situations that may arise.
“Over the last few years, we’ve started using technology on all of the buses, including cameras, radios for communication,” Gonsoulin said. “A few years ago, if a bus got in an accident out in the county or something, unless that bus driver had a cell phone, we had no way of knowing anything happened.”
While the district has worked to improve safety on the bus, other motorists remain the biggest danger. Chris Reed, who has been a bus driver for the district for five years., said he sees motorists disobey the school bus stop sign all the time. When motorists don’t stop, it puts the children who are getting on or off the bus in danger.
“I’ve had incidents when they don’t stop when the stop arm is out. When my children are crossing out in front of the bus, I make sure I put my hand out and not let them get out of the bus until all the cars have stopped,” Jefferson said. “It happens all the time. You see people acting like the stop arm doesn’t mean anything or they speed up as the stop sign is going out. You hear bus drivers talking about it all the time.”
Earlier this year, Gov. Haley Barbour signed Nathan’s Law — the school bus safety legislation named after Nathan Key, a 5-year-old from Jones County who died in December 2009 after being hit by a vehicle that illegally passed the school bus as he was getting off.
The law creates a 10-foot buffer zone around a school bus and punishes drivers who pass a stopped bus. A first offense would garner a sentence of up to one year in jail and a fine of $350-$750. A second offense would mean a fine of $750-$1,500, jail time and a driver’s license suspension of 90 days.
If a driver injures a child getting on or off a bus, they will be charged with aggravated assault. The previous law would have required the prosecutor to prove intent and serious bodily injury to press aggravated assault charges.
Reed said he found Starkville to be particularly dangerous because of all the college-age drivers. Distracted drivers routinely ignore the stopped school buses and drive right past, putting the children in danger.
“It happens every single day,” he said. “People need to realize that they can’t run those stop signs. It could be their kid that’s getting off the bus.”
School bus drivers are encouraged to record the license plate numbers of drivers who disobey the law. But pressing charges isn’t always easy. The bus driver has to fill out an affidavit, try to identify the driver and testify against them in court.
Nathan’s Law allows for school districts to install cameras on the stop arm of buses. Gonsoulin said it would be an issue of funding, but the district would look into it because it could help enforce the law.
The district is also looking into technology that will help keep track of which bus a student gets on and where they get off the bus. The system would help prevent children from getting off at the wrong stop and potentially getting lost.
“The bus driver is the first person that those children see that represents the school district every morning; They’re the last person the students see as they leave to go home,” Gonsoulin said. “With 60-65 percent of our students on the bus every day, we want to make sure we get them home safely.”