School bus drivers train extensively to deal with special cargo

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By Kristen Meriwether

At least 30 minutes prior to their shift, all Liberty Hill Independent School District bus drivers arrive at the Transportation Building near Liberty Hill Middle School. Some gather earlier to talk, drink coffee and swap stories with their fellow drivers in the mechanics garage, which is doubling as an extended break room during COVID.

As it nears time for the shift to start, the drivers head out to their buses to run through a pre-trip inspection. They check the lights, make sure the rear door is operational and visually inspect the tires. Drivers then pop the hood to check the motor’s fluids, belts and ensure there are no leaks.

Once the drivers have verified the bus is operating properly, each takes off on their assigned route to pick up their precious cargo—LHISD students.

“When I’m training drivers, I tell them that my ultimate goal is to get them to where I feel safe enough that my daughter could ride with them,” Tyrone Knight, a lead driver and trainer with LHISD, said during a recent interview from his bus.

Knight has been training bus drivers at LHISD for six years and driving for the district for eight. After spending 19 years in the retail industry he wanted a schedule that would allow him to spend more quality time with his daughter. With the bus driving schedule nearly mirroring his daughter’s school schedule, it was a perfect fit.

“While I don’t make near what I did make, I can’t trade back the years,” Knight said. “To me, it’s a better trade off.”

Knight rides a motorcycle in his off time and said he wasn’t overly concerned about the driving tests to become a bus driver. But the challenge of having dozens of children behind him while navigating the roads of Liberty Hill was a bit unexpected.

“When I got behind the wheel, it was a whole other world,” Knight said.

It wasn’t just kids misbehaving (although that does happen occasionally). It was the gravity of realizing what he was in charge of and how uncooperative other drivers on the road—many of them parents themselves—are around the bus.

“I don’t think anybody’s aggressively being malicious or anything like that, but it is that nature that if you’ve got to get somewhere, you don’t want to be stuck behind a slow-moving bus,” Knight said.

During his training Knight teaches the drivers both offensive and defensive techniques. The district router will also try to avoid sending drivers on too many unprotected left-hand turns. But full stops at railroad crossings, an annoyance to many driving behind the bus, are required by law.

Dealing with kids
Like his counterparts in the classroom, Knight and his fellow drivers have to deal with students who can, on occasion, be rowdy, moody or uncooperative.

“Kids are all different,” Knight said. “I think it’s very important for a driver to have a conversation with their kids, to be able to build that mutual respect.”

Knight pulls from his coaching experience to talk to students on their level and show that he can be someone the students can trust.

He said reserving judgment has been a huge asset in gaining the trust of students. Knight recalled a route he drove that had students with disciplinary problems. He never treated those students differently and when another student had a health scare on the bus it was the “troubled” students who sprang into action to help first.

“I always tell the drivers, you can’t judge those kids because you don’t know what the outside factor is,” Knight said. “You don’t know exactly what’s going on until you talk with them.”

Just enough drivers
LHISD has 39 bus drivers this year compared to 41 last year, but the district has, so far, been able to avoid the headline-grabbing bus driver shortages seen in other districts across the country.

“We have been really lucky,” LHISD Transportation Director Meleia Cox said.

Cox credits a fantastic router, Evelyn Mcleod, and the fact that many drivers are able to drive multiple routes each shift as a reason for avoiding a true shortage.

But as more students continue to enroll and new houses come online, the district is looking to proactively hire four more drivers.

“I cringe when I see new construction,” Cox said, laughing.

She was joking, but the stress of the growth is no laughing matter. The district currently transports approximately 1,600 students in the morning and approximately 2,300 in the afternoon — an increase over last year of 600 students in the morning and 800 in the afternoon, Cox said.

To accommodate the increase LHISD added seven elementary routes, seven middle school routes and five high school routes.

To help attract more drivers to meet the demand, the LHISD School Board voted in June to increase the base pay for bus drivers to $18 per hour, bringing the pay in-line with neighboring districts. Drivers also receive health benefits of a full-time employee, despite only working 25-35 hours per week.

The district also has a robust training program that is tailored to each person who applies. Knight, who is a trainer, said they go with the potential drivers to take the test so they feel supported through the process.

Once they have their permit, Knight or another trainer will spend at least 20 hours training the new driver in the bus, getting to know the route and in some instances the kids.

“It helps with the anxiety,” Cox said. “If anything arises, they have someone there that is experienced.”

Both Cox and Knight invite anyone in the community who has the ability to do a split shift to apply.

“If you want to make a difference in your kid’s or a kid’s life and really be a part of some change in your school district for the better, then a good way to get in is to be a bus driver,” Knight said.

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