By Curt Yeomans
Clayton County Public Schools' Transportation Department transports an average of 32,000 students to and from school every day, averaging a total distance of 17,000 miles traveled, according to school system Transportation Director John Lyles. That adds up to 3 million miles per year, he said.
The job of making sure the children are kept safe on their school buses falls to Transportation Department employees, ranging from the bus drivers to the mechanics who work on the buses at the school system's bus maintenance facility in Jonesboro.
This week, the importance of the work those individuals do is in the spotlight. This week is National School Bus Safety Week.
In Clayton County, it will be celebrated with refreshments for Clayton County Public Schools Transportation Department employees on Thursday, and with school system Superintendent Edmond Heatley riding a bus to school with Brown Elementary School students on Friday morning, Lyles said.
He also said Clayton County police officers will be patrolling bus stops and school zones to enforce traffic laws in those areas.
"National School Bus Safety Week is a time where we like to recognize our employees for all of the hard work they do, and to take time to educate the public and encourage them to practice safety in school zones, and around school buses," Lyles said.
National School Bus Safety Week is an annual program, started in the early 1990s, that is sponsored by the National Association for Pupil Transportation (NAPT); the National School Transportation Association; the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services; the Pupil Transportation Safety Institute, and several school-bus manufacturers, such as the Bluebird Corp., and Thomas Built Buses, according to the NAPT's web site.
Clayton County Public Schools has a fleet of 503 school buses, after recently selling 20 buses because they reached the 10-year age where the state government stops providing funding to help pay for maintenance, Lyles said.
He said school-bus drivers are required to do pre-trip and post-trip inspections of their buses.
"It starts with the drivers because they are where the tires meet the road," Lyles said. "They are responsible for examining their buses several times a day. Before they pick up any children in the morning, they have to do a pre-trip inspection, in regard to checking things like lubricant levels, tire pressure, and any strange noises that the bus is making."
The drivers also have to undergo 40 hours of training before they begin driving students, which exceeds the state requirement of 12 hours of training, Lyles said. The district's Transportation Department also requires drivers to undergo an additional six hours of training through the school year.
Lyles also said the buses are brought to the school system Transportation Department's maintenance facility every 22 days for maintenance inspections that are performed by the department's mechanics. Fleet Maintenance Manager Kenneth Brooks said 40 buses are serviced every day.
Fleet Maintenance Mechanic Guy "Boots" Mitchell, who has worked for the school system's Transportation Department for 26 years, said mechanics take a great deal of pride in making sure the buses stay running.
He said the mechanics will even change out a bus' brakes when there is only three-eighths of an inch on the pad left, even though state regulations state the pads do not have to be changed until one-fourth of an inch is left.
"Ninety-nine percent of the time, the buses are in excellent condition when they are brought in for their monthly inspection," Mitchell said. "In 26 years, I've always taken pride, like everyone in this department, in making sure these buses stay in top condition ... It eats me up if I hear someone call one of these buses a piece of junk."
In addition to the work done by the employees of the school system's Transportation Department, Lyles said bus safety also is the responsibility of students, and other motorists on the roads. He said students and their parents have to sign an agreement with the school system at the beginning of the year, where the pupils agree to behave on the buses.
"They have to stay seated on the bus, and the students are separated by gender, with the girls sitting on one side of the bus, and the boys sitting on the other side, and they are not allowed to put their arms out the windows," Lyles said
Motorists should be careful when driving around school buses and school zones, Lyles said. "Drivers need to be very observant around children," he said. "At any time, a child could dart out into the road to retrieve a pencil or a piece of paper. Motorists also need to drive slowly around bus stops and in school zones. If motorists can be careful, it can go a long way toward keeping the children safe."