They are criticized, under-appreciated, disrespected and often overwhelmed.
Yet, because of the numerous responsibilities placed upon them, they must wear many hats including that of monitor, counselor, first-aid administerer, referee, policeman, educator and, of course, school bus driver.
At any given time, they may be charged with the safety of up to 65 students and perhaps even more depending on the school bus route assigned to them. It is difficult enough to drive a 45-foot-long, 121/2-ton vehicle through the often busy and cluttered streets of Fort Wayne as it is.
But throw in kids between the ages of 5 and 18, where amongst the ranks will be those who are oblivious to the rules and may engage in any level of mischievous or even criminal behaviors, whether its throwing plastic water bottles, inappropriately touching other students or even screaming obscenities, as you might imagine for any bus driver to stay focused and engaged on the road while doing what they reasonably can to keep all students safe is an unenviable responsibility.
And yet school bus drivers all across the nation complete their tasks daily, most often without even a hint of appreciation.
But school bus drivers can face even more difficult challenges, challenges that they may have little control over. For they are the school employees who venture out in the community every morning and every afternoon. They open their doors to let students on as well to let them off. But when they open those doors, at any given time the unexpected can happen.
A painful reminder was offered last Oct. 5, when a Fort Wayne Community School bus pulled up to the intersection of Winter and Pettit Streets to make a routine stop. But it was not routine. Standing off from the bus stop was an adult male with a coat on and the hood pulled over his head.
When the driver opened the doors to let off high school students, the man jumped onto the bus and immediately verbally attacked the bus driver.
What became clear from the bus security cameras was that the man kept his right hand in his pocket.
When the driver attempted to call for assistance with the microphone, the man used his left hand to try to prevent the driver from calling out the emergency. As the driver attempted to react as he had been trained for just such unpredictable situations, the man finally pulled his right hand out of his pocket and smashed the driver causing injury.
The cameras then revealed the man immediately returned his hand into his pocket, jumped off the bus and proceeded to run away. Now, why the man kept his right hand in his pocket is unknown.
But for anyone trained to spot possible weapons, even a handgun, this would most certainly be an eye-catcher.
The driver, although injured, was able to complete his call, reporting all the details that he could to the transportation security staff. Fort Wayne Police were contacted and within a short period of time, the suspected was identified and later apprehended.
The man was identified as Vincent J. Harris Jr. wasand charged and ordered by the courts to serve six months for criminal trespass. The battery charge was ultimately dismissed.
As unbelievable as it may sound, school bus drivers face the possibility that such violent acts may confront them on any given day. Every school bus driver must keep their wits about them because the safety of all the students on the bus, as well as the driver’s safety hinges on the driver properly reacting, and hopefully if the opportunity presents itself, to diffuse the person from acting out violently.
Unfortunately, an Alabama school bus driver by the name of Charles Poland Jr. was shot and killed in front of the students on his bus back in 2013. The perpetrator, Jimmy Lee Dykes, known for his anti-government opinions, had early on introduced himself to Poland, trying to win his trust. It was all a ruse, however, as he revealed his intentions when he boarded Poland’s bus demanding that a student be given over to him that he could use as a hostage.
Poland resisted and lost his life. Dykes grabbed a 5-year-old, took the child to an underground bunker that he had constructed and gave his demands to the FBI. However, Dykes himself was killed when the FBI laid siege to the bunker. The student luckily survived.
Whether it’s a bus coming upon the scene of an active shooting, a turf war between street gangs, an estranged parent willing to do the unthinkable to gain access to their child, a student who brings a weapon onto a bus to gain attention or an angry parent mad at a student who is claimed to have bullied the parent’s child, a school bus driver must be prepared for just about anything imaginable.
So before you take the driver of that big yellow machine for granted, or are quick to criticize before really thinking the issue to the fullest, just try putting yourself behind the wheel of the bus and into the shoes of the driver.
Bob Rinearson is a resident of Fort Wayne.