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Bus drivers equipped to handle trouble

The new school year arrives Aug. 25 with changes for an often-overlooked group: Pinellas County's 600 school bus drivers.

For the first time, every driver will board his bus trained in ways to manage unruly students.

By December, 51 new air-conditioned buses will be on the road.

And drivers can request new cloth screens to protect them from spitballs and more dangerous objects.

The changes are meant to smooth what many drivers say is the roughest part of the ride _ dealing with students.

"One of the things (drivers) feel is no one supports them . . ." said Michael Fleming, director of transportation for Pinellas schools. "We're working to change that."

Driver turnover is a perpetual problem for many school districts, including Pinellas. When drivers quit, they first point to disruptive students as the reason, Fleming said.

In response, the district required drivers this summer to attend two days of training in how to encourage good behavior and deal with troublemakers. The new instruction is in addition to safety rules that first-time drivers learn.

School principals helped design the training, which included presentations by child behavior specialists and teachers of students with disabilities. Drivers met in groups of 30 to discuss past conflicts on their buses and how they could have been handled better.

An example: If a student tells the driver another student has a knife in her pocket, the driver should not stop the bus and conduct a search, Fleming said. Instead, he should discreetly contact police or school officials by CB radio, then drive to meet them at the school or bus compound.

In another effort to curb misbehavior, the district has purchased 51 air-conditioned buses with AM/FM radio and video cameras that should arrive by December, Fleming said.

The existing fleet, with the exception of buses that transport students with disabilities, are not air-conditioned and have only CB radios or cellular phones.

The air-conditioned buses will be assigned to the most troublesome routes, as determined by a survey of drivers and principals. Officials hope the air-conditioning will motivate veteran drivers to choose those routes, pairing the most experienced drivers with the most challenging students.

Records of disruptions on those buses will be kept to test that theory, and to determine if air conditioning and experienced drivers combine for more peaceful routes.

The video cameras are for documenting _ and therefore deterring _ disruptions. As for the radios, Fleming joked, "music calms the savage beast."

Also, Fleming will ask the School Board this fall to pay for district craftsmen to build cloth screens for drivers.

The screen would hang from the bus ceiling to the top of the driver's seat, attached with hook and loop fasteners, to protect the driver from paper clips, batteries and other items thrown by students. Similar screens have been used in Palm Beach County schools, Fleming said.

In May, a group of 30 disgruntled bus drivers gathered at a St. Petersburg church to complain about unruly students. More than air conditioning or cloth screens, those drivers said they want adult monitors on buses to help control disruptive students.

The district pays adult attendants to ride buses that transport students with disabilities. On other buses, the drivers are on their own.

Monitors for regular buses are "on our list to look at," Fleming said.

Ruth Cobarras, 49, has been driving a Pinellas County school bus for 11 years and welcomes efforts to improve her job. But the secret to student discipline cannot be found in any training course, she said.

"You've got to have some self-discipline about yourself. You've go to do more swallowing (your pride) and more listening, and then acting," Cobarras said.

"You have to show them you're that peace in the midst of the storm. A lot of kids don't have that, and you have to work three or four steps harder to show them."

The district is trying to identify other reasons drivers quit, Fleming said. Maintaining a dependable driver corps means less reliance on substitutes, who are less familiar with routes and more likely to be late picking up students.

Plus, if a substitute shortage occurs, other drivers must pick up the vacant routes. That makes drivers late to pick up students and late to drop them off at schools, causing them to miss instructional time.

Records show that male drivers are more likely to quit after 10 years, primarily because many men take the job around age 52 and drive only until they can begin collecting Social Security, Fleming said. Female drivers tend to drive longer, he said, but the reasons are unclear.

The district needs more substitute drivers. Drivers earn $9.48 per hour after completing a training course. For information, call 588-6377.

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