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School bus safety in limelight following recent wrecks
After 2 accidents in week, officials discuss importance of training
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School bus driver Randy Cofer does a quick check underneath his bus to make sure nothing looks out of place while at the Hall County bus depot on Thursday. Cofer has been a bus driver for eight years and has become an expert in performing checks on his bus before each trip. - photo by Erin O. Smith

When parents drop their children at the bus stop each morning, kissing their cheeks and buttoning their coats, they trust the safety of their children to the school system.

The Hall County community is still reeling following two school bus accidents last week, one that killed a passenger car driver and injured six students and another in which two drivers were sent to the hospital.

There are strict rules at state and local levels for bus drivers and school bus safety.

“We have a mandatory training program that we run our drivers through,” said Jewel Armour, executive director of operations for Hall County Schools. “It’s one that is established by the state Department of (Education’s) pupil transportation. They’re required to go through a minimum 12 hours of classroom education, six hours on the road without children and six more hours on the road with children.”

Drivers cannot carry children, even in training, until they get a temporary permit or a commercial license.

In Gainesville City Schools, drivers follow the same training program, according to transportation director Jerry Castleberry.

Gainesville sends its drivers to the Department of Motor Vehicles for the skills training and test, Castleberry said. Meanwhile, Hall has a bus driver trainer that is certified by the state.

“They follow a mandatory curriculum,” Armour said. “It’s prescribed by the state as far as what they teach, and they can’t vary from it. They have to make sure they cover everything in it, and then we cover other things after that, as well.”

Castleberry said Gainesville City Schools does additional development and training with its drivers during the year, including refresher courses and access to a library of training materials provided by the insurance company.

“We have safety meetings with our drivers during the year,” Armour said. “Sometimes that’s housekeeping-type stuff, and other times we talk about safety. We cover accidents we’ve had and we remind them of the safety training they’ve had.”

All bus drivers in the state are also required to attend a two-hour meeting called the State Driver Institute, conducted by the state department, each summer before the school year starts.

“That meeting is in-depth instruction,” Armour said. “They cover a lot of things like statistics as far as how many wrecks they’ve had, things they need to do differently, how to prepare for the road, how children should properly cross in front of the school bus, all those kinds of things.”

Armour and Castleberry said there are things drivers are trained to do to ensure maximum safety.

Armour said proper student behavior is huge.

“Students are expected to have as good or even better behavior as they would have in the classroom,” he said. “There are several things we do. For example, when crossing a railroad track we teach our drivers to have the students be silent and go through the procedure for crossing the tracks, listening for a train, that kind of thing.”

Castleberry said following road rules is, simply, the most important.

“First thing is always observing the roads and the rules,” he said. “It’s trying to be on the defensive at all times.”

Gainesville has 49 drivers for its seven campuses. Hall runs 230 bus routes, but Armour said the county has a hard time finding drivers to cover them all.

“We’re still struggling,” he said. “We train a lot of people that, for some reason, don’t end up finishing. I think a lot of times, they go take their test for their license and they either don’t pass or just don’t come back. We don’t really know. We just know we can’t get them to finish.”

The accidents last week were not the first two in recent history for local school bus drivers. In August, a woman was injured after she improperly passed a bus and was struck by another school bus at East Hall Middle School. In 2013, a bus carrying 20 students from Myers Elementary School was rear-ended by a tractor-trailer, sending the driver to the hospital. In 2012, a bus carrying 22 East Hall High School students flipped, sending 17 people, including the driver, to the hospital.

Armour said he is “saddened” by the two accidents last week, but confident in the training his drivers receive.

“It’s a hard thing for us, and certainly those people injured are in our prayers,” he said. “That’s one of the hardest things I ever have to do, to go to wrecks like that where there is loss of life. We certainly do not take that lightly, and those people will remain in our prayers.”