By Joel Hall
Clayton County Public Schools special-needs bus drivers, David O'Keeffe and Jacquelyn Turner, became national champions over the weekend, taking first place in the 13th Annual National Special Needs Team Safety Roadeo.
After winning the 2010 Georgia State Special Needs Roadeo in February, O'Keeffe and Turner became the first driver/monitor team from the state of Georgia to take home the national title.
On Saturday, at the Orange County Public Schools Pine Hills Compound in Orlando, Fla., O'Keeffe and Turner scored nearly perfect marks in events incorporating safety knowledge, obstacle-course driving, emergency evacuation procedures, and student management. According to O'Keeffe, the Clayton County driver/bus monitor team beat teams from the Moravia Central School District in New York and Jasper County School District in South Carolina, which took second and third place, respectively.
"This is the first time that Georgia has taken a national title," O'Keeffe said on Monday. "Right now, I feel exhausted. It was a lot of hard work on both our parts ... there was lots of studying, memorization, practicing on the driving course.
"The most difficult thing about the competition was that you had two students [on the bus] who were out of control," he continued. "They were adults acting as students. You had to keep the verbal fight from escalating into a physical fight. You had to do the best you could to distract their attention and keep their behavior down to a minimum. It makes it very challenging."
A three-year veteran of the competition, O'Keeffe took second place at the state contest and ninth place at the nationals in 2008, working with his wife, Cherrie O'Keeffe, a fellow bus driver for Clayton Schools.
This year, David O'Keeffe took first place with Turner, who previously worked with him as a bus monitor. Turner said that for weeks, she and David O'Keeffe spent several hours each day, after work, practicing and reviewing for the competition.
"Outside of our jobs, we trained for three or four hours a day to make sure everything was right," Turner said. "We were thrilled to know that we actually did it. I kind of hope it boosts the morale of all the people who work for Clayton County in education. If you put in the effort, it pays off."
David O'Keeffe said he and Turner completed several challenging courses, including a bus-fire emergency evacuation scenario, which required the team to evacuate several students from a bus, and a surprise course called "Offset Alley," which required drivers to snake through a serpentine track of obstacles without knocking anything down.
Clayton County Public Schools Transportation Director John Lyles said the pair's win is a demonstration of the school system's commitment to the safety of its special-needs students.
"The rodeo sets up a lot of the day-to-day conditions you would experience in transporting these kind of students," Lyles said. "It takes patience and it also takes commitment to continuing learning, to make sure you have the skill set to meet those needs. By winning this competition, it proves what we have known all along ... we have some of the best bus drivers in the world transporting our most precious resources."