If you think driving a car with a couple of children fussing and fidgeting in the back seat can be distracting, consider the plight of school bus drivers.
They maneuver a bulky, boxy vehicle through busy streets while shouldering responsibility for dozens of otherwise unsupervised students.
It’s a full-time job with irregular hours. The pay? Generally less than $20,000.
At a time when the state is looking to ramp-up security in schools, some point out school buses have not been a part of the conversation.
In Miami-Dade, Florida’s largest school district, which has more than 1,300 drivers. Schools are also served by privately run buses. A 15-year-old student brought a loaded gun onto one of those during the past year year, and it accidentally discharged, hitting a 13-year-old in the neck, killing her.
In New York City, where about 9,000 school bus drivers recently went on strike, close to $7,000 is spent annually for each student passenger. Miami-Dade, the nation’s fourth-largest school district, spends about $1,000 for each school bus passenger.
Parents like Robin Godby of Pembroke Pines say school bus drivers should just be in charge of driving students safely — that there ought to be an aide on board watching students to make sure they’re behaving and are safe.
“I don’t think they get the support,” Godby said of bus drivers. “They have to deal with kids who have disciplinary problems and they have to drive a vehicle.”
She knows what it’s like to try to discipline her two daughters from the driver’s seat.
“It drives me nuts,” Godby said. “Especially if they start fighting or bickering. It’s distracting.”
School bus drivers in Florida’s larger districts can have close to 90 students behind them.
Ronda Martin, with the Office of Labor Relations for Miami-Dade public schools, says bus drivers are paid for the 191 days when students are in school. But she says many of the drivers work overtime and weekends to earn extra money.
“I try to do overtime at least every day, five days a week,” said Sharayne Milton, a school bus driver for Miami-Dade schools. “And if they want me to work on the weekend, I will.”
Milton takes students on field trips and waits to transport students who have after-school sports and activities. Her day starts at 4 a.m. and can end at 10:30 p.m., with about four unpaid hours in between while students are in class.
In Miami-Dade, about 75 percent of school bus drivers are female, which can make it difficult to discipline older, male students.
When fits fly
Driver Gwendolyn Tillman says she won’t get in between fighting students.
“Usually if there are some other guys on the bus and the guys have respect for the bus drivers, the other young men on the bus will pull them apart,” Tillman said.
If nobody pulls the kids apart, bus drivers are instructed to call the district dispatcher — and not the police.
“Our drivers do not take actions against individual students,” said Jerry Klein, who is in charge of school transportation in Miami-Dade County.
“There is a process for them to fill out a report and then the schools deal with it like any other misbehavior in the schools.”
The policy of calling a dispatcher rather than authorities in the event of an emergency has sparked some controversy.