Above and Beyond the Call of Duty

Albert Neal, Associate Editor
Posted on February 1, 2006

At the National Association for Pupil Transportation’s (NAPT) 2005 conference, held during the fall in Austin, Texas, the student transportation industry gave awards to several individuals whose dedication, drive and selfless acts deserved special recognition.

SCHOOL BUS FLEET interviewed these fine professionals to learn the motivation behind their commitment to service and excellence. Here are their stories.

Passionate about special-needs care
Continued education in the area of special needs is a must for school bus drivers, assistants and others who transport the medically fragile or developmentally disabled. Few have done more in special-needs care with regard to education, administration and coordination than Debbie Rike, supervisor of transportation at Shelby County Schools in Arlington, Tenn.

Rike embodies the definitive special-needs care provider. Her dedication to the field was spotlighted at the NAPT conference, where she was honored with the Sure-Lok Special Needs Transportation Award. The award recognizes outstanding individuals specifically involved in the direct delivery of service in special-needs transportation.

Rike’s transportation record speaks for itself. She has involved herself in almost every aspect of special-needs care. Her immersion into the field began as an instructor almost 26 years ago when she joined the Shelby County School system to teach special-education resource classes. She quickly rose in the ranks, becoming a special-education curriculum coordinator in 1994 and supervisor of transportation in 2000.

A major portion of her work involves assuring that drivers are properly trained to assist special-needs students with transportation to and from school each day.

“I think it’s extremely important to keep current with new trends and information regarding medically fragile and emotionally disturbed children, which is a lot of what we transfer on special-education buses,” says Rike.

Rike has trained both special-needs and regular drivers in groups as small as 75 and as large as 250. When she isn’t coordinating with an outside source, she’ll do the training herself. She saw a need for drivers and bus assistants to be trained to work with autistic children (see Q&A on pg. 54) and became a certified trainer through the Crisis Prevention Institute.

When she’s not in attendance at IEP meetings to discuss the safest methods available to assist students with transportation needs, Rike is busy performing assessments of special-needs students to determine their independence in riding a regular bus.

“I think the bus is an extension of the classroom,” she says. “If you’re wanting medically fragile and emotionally disturbed children to work in general society, then we have to make it an appropriate move so that we help the child learn how to deal with situations that aren’t always ideal, such as other kids ridiculing them.”

Rike works closely with the Memphis and Shelby County health departments, is certified by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in child passenger safety for school buses and is a member of several organizations, including the NAPT and the Tennessee Association of Pupil Transportation. She is past president of the Tennessee Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development.

“The part I enjoy the most about my job is working on problems to determine solutions,” says Rike. “I also really enjoy working directly with the kids, which I don’t get to do as much. But I do participate very actively in Special Olympics activities where you actually work directly with students and athletes.”

Courage under fire
The strange things that school bus drivers see, hear and encounter while out on the road transporting America’s future would amaze many, perturb plenty and sometimes — depending on where you live or work — not surprise any.

The latter is the reason that school bus driver Heather Jeane from Columbia-Brazoria Independent School District in W. Columbia, Texas, did not panic when 18-year-old Terrence James came running toward her bus in the middle of the street, causing her to pull over to avoid hitting him. He appeared distraught and in need of help, but what occurred next took Jeane by surprise.

James approached the passenger door of the bus muttering strange words and signaling a need to be allowed aboard. Jeane refused to open the bus door, however, and gestured for him to come around to the driver’s window. There, James yelled to Jeane, “Help me, help me. The devil’s after me! They’re going to kill me!” That’s when Jeane realized something was terribly wrong.

“We’ve had various terror trainings here,” says Marisa Weisinger, director of transportation at Columbia-Brazoria School District. “One of the things that stood out in Heather’s mind was if someone comes to the door, you don’t open it for them. Ask them to come around to the driver’s side window and ask how you can help.”

But things got worse when James reached the driver’s side window. He pulled himself up along the side of the bus, reached into the window, began slugging Jeane in the face and then crawled into the bus.

Inside the bus, James struck Jeane several more times and knocked her out of her seat and onto the floor. He began to grab the steering wheel. The adrenaline kicked in for Jeane, who by now was aware of her option to fight or take flight. There were five elementary students on the bus who needed her protection. Jeane pulled the keys from the ignition.

James jumped on top of Jeane and began slapping and hitting her more now. Three local teens realized what was going on and boarded the bus to subdue and detain James until authorities arrived. Undeterred, Jeane left the scene to complete her route. She returned to the scene later.

“Heather Jeane is the strong, silent and unassuming type,” says Weisinger. ÒThese actions of hers really surprised us all. We are proud that she stood up to Terrence James the way she did.” For her courage, Jeane was awarded the Blue Bird Heroism Award at the NAPT conference.

James faces a number of felony charges, including five counts of unlawful restraint of a child, assault of a public servant and unlawful restraint of a public servant. He's being held on a $180,000 bond. If convicted, James could face up to two years for each child restraint charge and up to 10 years on each of the other charges.

A strong vision for safety
The transportation department at the School District of Hillsborough County (SDHC) in Thonotosassa, Fla., is committed to the safe transportation of students. For its efforts, the department was the recipient of the Mirror Lite Safety Cross Award.

With leaders such as Karen Strickland, general manager; Dee Dee Smith, district route coordinator; Pam Smith, supervisor for related services; and Linda Orlando, automotive body repair supervisor, the department has taken an active approach to assuring a better outcome in the case of an unfortunate situation requiring an emergency evacuation.

The group has collaborated on the creation of an emergency evacuation kit. The five-piece evacuation kit consists of a disposable camera, a two-person drag blanket, non-latex gloves, a tether and a web cutter.

“The safety and well-being of the students we transport was the goal and intent for creating the emergency packet,” says Strickland. “We have to make accommodations for each of the children and train the drivers and attendants so they use the equipment in the best interest of the child.”

The department understands the intense stress surrounding a real evacuation situation, which can affect emotions and slow the reactions of even the most knowledgeable personnel and passengers. The administration did not want its drivers and assistants to be caught unprepared.

“If the training is appropriate and adequate,” says Strickland, “then normally, panic doesn’t occur until after the incident or accident occurs. Our challenge will be making sure our new employees are as well trained as our current employees.” SDHC conducts training for drivers during their initial certifications. They also receive in-service training each year. One of the annual in-service sessions focuses on the proper use of the emergency evacuation kit.

“Everybody wants to be the best they can be. When tools are provided, people know that their best interests and the children’s are thought of. Drivers are very enthusiastic and encouraged to know that everybody is here to help them do a good job with the children they transport,” says Strickland.

About service and excellence
How much time and money can a transportation operation save when it has on staff a guy with approximately 20 years of experience under his tool belt? What if that same guy is the one who bested several other top inspectors from across the nation for the title of “America’s Best School Bus Inspector”? Ricky Jennings is that man, and he could save an operation plenty of time and money.

Jennings, who began his career as a truck driver, is a mechanic at Wilkes County Schools in Wilkesboro, N.C. With his invaluable skills and knowledge, he acts as a mobile utility for the transportation department.

Jennings believes that you learn plenty from working with other mechanics, but he really appreciates Wilkes County’s orientation for continued education and training. If there's a workshop or clinic on school bus mechanics, then the district is sure to send the techs there to learn. Jennings is an ASE Certified Master School Bus Technician and an ASE Certified Heavy Duty Truck Technician as well. He enjoys working with electronic engine diagnostics, especially on Thomas Built Buses.

He has also taken workshops with OEMs such as Freightliner. During the competition for America’s Best Inspector, Jennings attended a three-day training session at Thomas Built Buses’ C2 plant in High Point, N.C. His drive for knowledge is commensurate with his passion for safety.

“Every child in the United States deserves a safe and timely form of transportation to and from school each day,’ he says. “A big part of my job is seeing that they get that. I feel it is a part of their education.”

Preparing the troops
Because of the similar characteristics with many of the pupil transportation operations across America, it can be challenging to differentiate one driver-training program from the next. But the School District of Hillsborough County Schools has found ways to distinguish itself from the pack.

The district uses 1,103 school buses to transport approximately 93,000 students to and from school each day. SDHC accomplishes this with the help of its 1,141 drivers. For its exemplary driver-training program, the district was honored recently with IC Corp.’s School Bus Driver Training & Safety Award. The award was well received.

“I don’t know what the others do, but I know what we do,” says John Saffold, bus driver training specialist. “The state requires 40 hours of training. We provide a total of 62.” The additional 22 hours of training are spent proportionately behind the wheel and in the classroom.

SDHC’s driver-training program consists of nine modules, which are taught by several different instructors who are well versed in their particular fields. Among other things, the fleet maintenance managers familiarize trainees with all aspects of their vehicles, they receive behind-the-wheel training by seasoned drivers, dispatch personnel teaches the trainees radio procedures and a field trip clerk covers the coordination and selection process involved in planning field trips. Student management and defensive driving, which is taught by a coordinator who is certified by the National Safety Council to teach the course, are also covered extensively.

The trainers use a variety of tools, including PowerPoint presentations, lectures and hands-on training, to reach the trainees. Coordinators are shuffled throughout the training process to alleviate any monotony and to provide a different instructional voice and style to trainees.

Saffold oversees much of the hiring and training of bus drivers and makes sure unqualified drivers don’t slip through the cracks.

“For the last couple of years, I’ve approved the applications for hire,” he says. “We also have evaluation sheets that are given to the trainers each day for the drivers they train. Trainers use the sheets to evaluate the recruits using a point system. I look at those each day, and if there are problems, then I’ll talk to that candidate.”

To bolster its training efforts and provide additional vehicles for professional growth, Hillsborough has instituted a number of training-support programs.

The pre-planning training includes a 25-page document that highlights the most important areas of the driver handbook. The guide also focuses drivers’ attention on sections that may have been problem areas in training taken during previous years.

There is also a recertification/professional study day. This is a seven-hour training session that reviews FTE collection procedures, sexual harassment policies, civility training and codes of ethics. These are just a few of the many certification-related policies and procedures covered in the seven-hour review.

Driver refresher training is available when needed, as is the alternative-training packet. Drivers must answer 100 percent of the questions in the alternative-training packet correctly or repeat the training and online material. The transportation department also publishes a bi-monthly newsletter called the Trans-Script. The Trans-Script is replete with useful training information.

Drivers have all the tools they need to perform their jobs like seasoned veterans. Hillsborough’s programs are inundated with information and tools for learning, and its trainers are enthusiastic about what they do.

“I’ve always said that it’s easy to drive a school bus,” says Dee Dee Smith, transportation route coordinator. “It’s once you put those children on the bus and drive into traffic when it becomes a challenge. Our trainers have that experience.”

Technically speaking
Since high school, Orlando Macario, an ASE-certified school bus technician at the Somerset County Educational Services Commission in Bridgewater, N.J., knew that working on cars was his thing. Back then, he was into hot rods. His interests have changed over the years, but, as the saying goes, little boys never grow up — they just get bigger toys.

Macario enjoys the challenge of working with electrical wiring, especially multiplex systems. He takes training courses when they are available and when time permits, but he insists that some of the best information comes from other technicians. Macario recently bested competitors from all over the United States to win the coveted America’s Best School Bus Technician title. The contest is held in conjunction with America’s Best School Bus Inspector. Both are sponsored by the NAPT, with Zonar and Bus Parts Warehouse as co-sponsors.

Asked whether he prefers to be called a mechanic or technician, Macario says, “It really doesn’t matter, but I think technician is becoming the common term, because computers are becoming so prevalent in school buses. You almost need a degree in rocket science to work on some of these vehicles. New technologies like hybrids and electric buses are going to change the whole industry.”

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