Hard road, cheap pay, for South Florida school bus drivers

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.

In Hillsborough County, a school bus driver called the district when 7-year-old Isabella Herrera experienced trouble breathing on the school bus. The little girl had a neuromuscular disorder, and she later died.

The Hillsborough County school district could not comment because it’s in the midst of a lawsuit over the circumstances surrounding Herrera’s death.

But in Miami-Dade, Klein said calling a dispatcher is just as good as calling the police.

“We have access as quickly as they do to be able to call [the police], you don’t really save time,” Klein said. “But beyond that, the dispatcher can reach a wide variety of people and try to get the closest people there to be able to assist.”

Keeping kids in line

Sonia Hanson has been a school bus driver in Miami-Dade for the past 28 years. She says keeping kids in line is not an easy task.

“Your eyes have to constantly be rotating,” Hanson said. “You can’t just look straight ahead. You have to be able to drive, look around you, look in the rear view mirror to make sure the students are staying in their seat.”

And some students challenge the bus driver.

“They want to bully you, they want to be in control of the bus, having their head or their hands out the window,” Hanson said. “It’s stressful. Especially when you’re dealing with the traffic.”

The Florida Department of Education used to publish incidents of misbehavior on school buses. But it no longer does.

The most recent data, from 2007, shows there were more than 2,000 discipline incidents on school buses.

But middle school student Sarah Godby, 12, Robin’s daughter, says it’s the small things students do on a school bus that can really set the tone for the day.

“They throw rocks,” she said. “And they throw pens outside the window.

“It’s good from where I sit, but in the back it’s not the best,” she said.

Students who repeatedly misbehave can be suspended or banned from riding a school bus. But school bus drivers say that’s a last resort because it could mean a student isn’t able to get to school.

This story is part of the StateImpact Florida education reporting project, a partnership between NPR, WLRN-Miami Herald News and WUSF, which examines the effect of state policies on the lives of people.

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