State Roadeo Champs

Clayton County Public Schools proved its special-needs bus drivers are some of the best-trained in the state by taking first place last weekend in the 2010 State Special Needs Roadeo.

Next month, drivers David O'Keeffe and Jacquelyn Turner will represent Georgia at the National Special Needs Team Safety Roadeo, which will test driving skills, attention to safety, and the ability to deal with emergency situations.

The state competition took place Saturday outside Tara Stadium in Jonesboro, where 30, two-person teams from 17 counties participated in driving obstacle courses and safety drills, in which volunteer passengers simulated student behaviors and disabilities often encountered by special-needs bus drivers.

As a team, O'Keeffe and Turner took first place, while another team of Clayton County drivers, Paulette Raper and Angie Dorris, placed fifth in the competition. Drivers Louise Martin and Becky Martin, of Forsyth County Public Schools, who took second place, will join O'Keeffe and Turner in the national competition, on March 6, in Orlando, Fla.

A three-year veteran of the competition, O'Keeffe took second place at the state and ninth place at the nationals in 2008, working with his wife, Cherry O'Keeffe, a fellow bus driver for Clayton Schools.

He said the experience has prepared him for the nationals this year. "There are no surprises now, because I have seen everything," O'Keeffe said. "The first year when I competed with my wife, there was a [simulated] fire at the front of the bus and we had to evacuate a student in a wheelchair and two other students out the back door. This year, the bus was quickly filling with water and the front exits were blocked. We had to emphasize [to judges] that we were handling the students carefully.

"The state competition is just child's play compared to what you have to do at nationals," he continued. "I have heard they have had [simulated] hostage situations. You do need help from [other] employees to practice for an event of this scale ... We are very confident."

Turner said this will be her first year at the national competition. She said that while the competition will be challenging, it will ultimately help her develop skills that will benefit her passengers.

"You learn a lot," Turner said. "The events in the rodeo are like different things you would have to face while you were driving. This gives you a little insight as to how you would react."

John Lyles, Clayton Public Schools' director of transportation, said the school system was honored to host the state competition on Saturday, and that winning the competition is "icing on the cake." He believes the school system is well-prepared to bring home a national title.

"That transportation department believes in lifelong learning," Lyles said. "That's why we always encourage our bus drives to enter the rodeo, so that we can protect our most precious resource, which is the students. This [winning the state competition] says we are committed to the safety of our children and that we have some of the best drivers in the country on our staff. I am proud that Clayton County is representing the state on a national stage. I think we have an excellent chance."