Featuring: Academics Plus, Atkins, Bigelow, Central Arkansas Christian, Clinton, Concord, Conway, Conway Christian, Conway St. Joseph, Danville, Dardanelle, Dover, Greenbrier, Guy Perkins, Heber Springs, Hector, Maumelle, Mayflower, Morrilton, Mount Vernon-Enola, Nemo Vista, Perryville, Pottsville, Quitman, Russellville, Sacred Heart, Shirley, South Side Bee Branch, Two Rivers, Vilonia, Western Yell County, West Side Greers Ferry, Wonderview.READ ONLINE
Driver alert: Kids go back to schoolPublished August 22, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
Bryant School District bus driver Cindy Henson comes to a stop and displays a red stop sign on the opening day of school Monday. Henson, who has been driving the big yellow buses for 29 years, is one of the many school-bus drivers in the state taking part in Arkansas’ Flashing Red, Kids Ahead campaign asking motorists to be alert and stop as children get on or off the bus.
Monday was a day of surprises for the Transportation Department of the Bryant Public Schools.
Sherri Benton at the front desk was answering phone calls from teachers and parents, as new and sometimes unexpected students needed to catch a bus to school. Working the phones and the radio linking 75 bus drivers, and aided by a computer showing a map of the Bryant district, Benton created new stops, adjusted schedules and identified school boundaries for anxious parents.
“The first day of school is our most challenging day,” said Tom Farmer, the school system’s transportation director. “Our information says a student is supposed to go to this elementary, but now he’s going to another, and we have to work out a new location to pick him up.”
Bryant is a growing community, and the student population expands with the city. Farmer said there are always new students on a route that drivers didn’t know would be there.
“I’ve already gotten a call from a driver who said there were more students than expected this morning,” Farmer said. “He guessed there might be an overload in the evening, so we will see if we need a second bus.”
Once the buses arrive at the school, the drivers then have to deal with more traffic, as many parents elect to bring their children to school for the first week or two.
Dealing with all the traffic and surprises, the top priority for the bus drivers is student safety.
Farmer said all Bryant, Benton, Bauxite and Harmony Grove schools in Saline County and others across the state are taking part in Flashing Red, Kids Ahead, a campaign to increase bus-safety awareness led by the Arkansas Department of Education.
“Our bus drivers take the safety of our students very seriously,” Farmers said. “So should other drivers whenever a school bus is around. They have a responsibility to students anywhere to know and obey the traffic laws.”
One of the most abused traffic laws in Arkansas, Farmer said, is that it is illegal for a motorist to use a cellphone while driving in a school zone.
“But I see parents who are dropping off or picking up their children on the phone all the time,” he said. “Everyone is in a hurry and is not paying enough attention.”
The most serious offence is passing a stopped school bus. Fines and other penalties were increased in 2005 for anyone going past a stopped bus from any direction. The legislative act is known as Issac’s Law, named for Isaac Brian, a Bryant Elementary School student who was struck and killed when a driver illegally passed a bus while students were unloading.
“That was our hardest day,” Farmer said. “If we can save one child’s life with this campaign, it’s worth it.”
However, he said, Bryant bus drivers report one to three incidents of cars going around a stopped school bus every day. He picked a random report from a school day last spring and counted six incidents reported in one day.
“These buses are 40 feet long and bright yellow, but people say they don’t see it when asked why they passed,” Farmer said.
Motorists have passed stopped school buses from all directions, he said. Some have even passed to the right of a stopped bus, having to leave the road to go through, endangering students as they disembark from the bus.
When one of the school system’s drivers sees a car going past a stopped school bus, the driver fills out a form reporting the incident with a time and location. They also include the make, model and color of the vehicle, with the tag number, if possible. Those signed and notarized reports are given to the Saline County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office in Benton.
“Ken Casady, the prosecutor, goes after them once we have reported an incident,” Farmer said. “He even has a person who can sometimes follow buses to witness people passing illegally.”
Flashing Red, Kids Ahead is not just to warn motorists about school-bus safety.
“The campaign also serves as an excellent time to remind students and parents about the simple safety measures they can take while going to and from the bus stop,” said Tom Kimbrell, state education commissioner.
“When kids are ready to get on the bus, you can see the gleam in their eyes,” Farmer said. “They are excited, from K to 12, no matter the grade. They are thinking about lunch, recess or a new teacher, but they have rules they need to follow.”
Farmer said parents should help students stay at least 10 feet from the roadside.
“Students shouldn’t run to the bus as it pulls up,” he said. “There are rules to follow to board the bus safely; then sit down and talk to your neighbor.”
Kimbrell said the safety campaign also gives everyone a chance to thank Arkansas school-bus drivers for their “professionalism, dedication and hard work.”
When Farmer talks about his team of drivers, the football coach he once was comes into his voice.
“No one grows up wanting to be a school-bus driver, but people get involved in school transportation, and they stay because they love the kids,” he said. “They have as many as 70 students on a bus, and then they do something even teachers are not asked to do: They turn their back on them and drive.”
Drivers have to check all the mirrors every few seconds, and at each stop, they have to turn on their amber caution lights about 300 feet from the stop. After they stop, they have to turn on the red lights, then release the stop sign and the gate at the front of the bus before they open the door. At every stop, the drivers count who gets in or out, and they always know how many are on the bus at any given time. Meanwhile, they are keeping to a schedule.”
Farmer said students, parents and the school system ask a lot of their school-bus drivers.
“And they respond. They are a close-knit group,” he said. “They are a family, united to keep the kids safe.”
Staff writer Wayne Bryan can be contacted at (501) 244-4460 or at email@example.com.
Tri-Lakes Edition Writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at 501-244-4460 or firstname.lastname@example.org.