School system prepares for changes in bus safety laws

Published 9:11 am Wednesday, August 1, 2018

As the day when Carter County students return to school draws nearer, school officials are working to ensure those children have a safe means of transportation too and from school.

Each year, the Carter County School System’s Transportation Department works to comply with new rules and regulations mandated by the state. This year, one of the major changes passed down by state officials is an increase in the mandated training for bus drivers.

“All new hiree bus drivers will go through a new, more intensive training,” said Transportation Director Wayne Sams, adding bus drivers already employed by the system will also be required to undergo additional training.

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Sams said his department is prepared for the new training requirements, noting his staff has always attended more training that was required by the state.

“We always amped it up and did more here because that was what we wanted to do and what we felt we should do,” Sams said.

The new entry-level bus driver training covers a wide variety of topics including policy and procedures; how to deal with students misbehaving on the bus; harassment, bullying, and hazing; reporting child abuse; suicide prevention; and safe bus operations.

Sams said much of the changes to training requirements for new hires were made in response to a fatal bus crash in Chattanooga in 2016 that claimed the lives of six children. Investigators in the case said the driver was speeding and using his cell phone while driving the bus at the time of the crash.

Also new in training this year, Sams said he has partnered with the Carter County Sheriff’s Office to provide training for his bus drivers on how to respond in an active shooter situation or when someone tries to force their way onto the bus. While Carter County has been blessed by not having an active shooter situation occur, Sams said his drivers are often faced with an adult trying to force their way onto buses.

“We have a lot of trouble with mad parents trying to get on the bus,” Sams said, adding it often deals with an issue between students on the bus such as bullying. “Per state law, if you are not a school official or authorized personnel you are not allowed to get on that bus.”

State law makes it a misdemeanor criminal offense for an unauthorized person to get onto a school bus.

To help combat the issue, Sams said all of the county’s school buses are being equipped with a sign on the bus steps warning against unlawful entry and citing the state law.

Also as a result of state law, school buses must now display a phone number for individuals to call to report unsafe driving.

“Once I get a safety complaint, I have 24 hours to investigate that,” Sams said. “In 48 hours I have to turn it over to (Director of Schools) Dr. Kevin Ward.”

In the past, Sams has conducted random ride alongs with drivers to ensure safety protocols are being followed, particularly when a complaint has been filed or a safety issue raised. A change in state law for the coming school year is making those ride alongs mandatory.

“I have to do a ride along evaluation with every one of my drivers at least once but they recommend doing two,” Sams said.

With the school year set to begin for students on August 13, Sams said his bus drivers will attend their updated training before the year gets underway next week.