Communication key in school bus safety

About 24 million children ride the bus to school every day. Drivers are expected to keep their eyes an ears open to diffuse potential problems -- no easy task.
About 24 million children ride the bus to school every day. Drivers are expected to keep their eyes an ears open to diffuse potential problems -- no easy task.

COLUMBIA -- Duct tape is used to seal the mouths of unruly children on a Ware Shoals school bus.

Two 16-year-old boys sexually assault a 14-year-old girl on a Berkeley County school bus after paying the driver $10 to look the other way.

A once-beloved Gilbert school-bus driver sits in prison after confessing to sexually abusing girls as young as 7 on his bus.

Such stories grab the headlines and paint a grim picture of the trek that more than 300,000 S.C. children take twice a day on a school bus.

But the reality is the vast majority of them arrive at school and back home again safe and sound.

Local schools lean heavily on statewide standards for training, hiring and checking the backgrounds of school-bus drivers to make sure children get to school safely.

But bus drivers and the people who work with them will tell you that, day in and day out, school-bus safety often comes down to basic communication and diffusing problems before they get out of hand.

"It takes a lot to drive a bus -- not just the physical part the drivers have to do," said Glenda Sanders, director of transportation for Lexington 3 School District and a bus driver for 10 years.

"You've got the mental part of driving. You've got to be able to drive a bus with your eyes and ears open for the safety of the children and you."

'A little extreme'

The latest incidents that have people talking about bad bus-driver behavior happened in Greenwood County between November and last week.

Eight children told their new bus driver in Ware Shoals on Wednesday that their previous driver had duct-taped their mouths and hands for being noisy and unruly, the Greenwood County Sheriff's Office said.

Helen Vanessa Curry, 35, was charged with eight counts of cruelty to children for the duct-tape incident.

Curry, whose 9-year-old daughter was one of the eight bus passengers she isshe's accused of duct-taping, had driven a bus for Ware Shoals School District 51 since August 2006.

She was fired for an unrelated violation of district policy, said Fay Sprouse, district superintendent, who declined to elaborate.

Curry was released Thursday on a $1,600 personal-recognizance bond on the cruelty to children charges, misdemeanors with a maximum sentence of 30 days in prison or a fine of no more than $200 for each.

Curry's arrest shocked parents around the state.

"I know what school-bus drivers have to deal with, but taping children's mouths shut seems a little extreme," said Barney Corbett, whose two sons ride the bus to Chapin Middle and High schools.

Problems, solutions

Bus drivers face a wide range of problems from kids each day -- from yelling and screaming and general rowdiness, to fighting and harassing each other and sometimes harassing drivers.

"The main problem we have is when kids don't do what we ask them to do," said John Clinton, an area bus supervisor in Lugoff for the Kershaw County School District for the past 15 years.

"No eating and drinking on the bus -- it's a hazard for us. If a bus is driving 35 to 40 miles per hour and someone's food goes down the wrong pipe, the driver has to find a place to pull over and help the child."

High stress, low pay

Before setting foot on a school bus, though, drivers must be certified by the state and pass a criminal background check.

"In a sense, it's a very prestigious job," said Donald Tudor, state director of school transportation. "You have to be extremely qualified to get it."

But the number of qualifications, the high stress of the job and the low pay makes it a hard position to fill and lends itself to a 25 percent turnover rate, said Donald Tudor, state director of school transportation.

Pay for drivers and hours worked varies for each district. In Kershaw County, for example, drivers make $11.40 to $13 an hour and work 5:55 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. to 5 p.m.

Despite the headaches of chauffeuringdriving around rambunctious children every day, some drivers say they enjoy the work.

Bus driver Claudia McManus, who worked in a Lugoff day care center for 10 years before becoming a bus driver, said when she is losing patience with her passengers for being too loud, she'll pull off to the side of the road and sit quietly until they simmer down.

"You have to have control of the bus," she said. "If something's going on, you pull off in a safe place and get them quiet or wait until they get it out of their system.

"Children are human beings, and they need to be treated like one."