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Bus drivers deal with roads, students, parental criticism
It's a cold December morning with temperatures in the mid-30s, and Zelda Parker's day as a bus driver for the Jackson School District has begun before the sun is up.
Parker and 51 other Jackson drivers gather in the bus garage on Orchard Drive to enjoy a quick cup of coffee and some good-natured banter before going out to start their buses and run through their checklists.
It's a routine that Parker, after 19 years as a bus driver, knows by heart.
Parker and other drivers say they are aware of the criticism they've received lately from Jackson parents who say their children are bullied on those twice-daily trips. But the drivers respond that they don't believe parents fully understand what they deal with every day.
"Until people have actually tried this job for a day, they don't have a clue," Parker said. "I think parents only know about 50 percent of what really goes on."
Video cameras on buses
Parker said in her years as a bus driver, she has dealt with fistfights, students carrying knives and has suffered a lot of verbal abuse.
For reasons such as those, the district has installed video cameras on every bus. If a problem occurs, the tapes are viewed to help verify what took place, said Carol Woods, Jackson's transportation director.
Woods admitted that there probably are times when something is missed, but she said a driver has more to focus on than just student behavior.
The Jackson School District has the largest bus route in Southeast Missouri. Covering 280 square miles, the district's fleet of 62 buses make a combined 1,610 stops and travel more than 3,000 miles every day.
Parker makes driving a 40-foot bus look easy as she winds her way around the streets of Jackson. She negotiates sharp turns and avoids patches of snow and ice, all the while dividing her attention between the road in front of her and the 70-plus children behind her.
"Anymore, I'm more comfortable in a school bus than in my car," Parker said.
Students, bundled up in their parkas with backpacks slung over their shoulders, are greeted with a cheerful "good morning" and warm smile as they board the bus.
'Just got to be good'
The morning atmosphere is hectic. It's three-to-a-seat for most of the children, plus musical instrument cases and backpacks, which sit in the floor or on their laps.
There's a constant chatter as students greet each other and discuss plans for the upcoming school day.
"The bus is always fun," said sixth-grader Brittney Simpson. "But the rules are so strict that sometimes we get in trouble."
Occasionally, Parker uses the bus's intercom system to admonish one student or another, but most of the time she simply shouts above the noise to remind students to face forward, keep their hands to themselves and sit -- not stand -- in their seats.
Her enforcement of bus rules has produced some strong-minded critics among her passengers.
"Zelda can be mean," said seventh-grader Blake Oldson. Then, rethinking his statement, he added, "Well, she's not really mean. You've just got to be good."
Blake's mother, Joy Oldson, said in the eight years her son has ridden Parker's bus, there have been some problems. Oldson said for several months last year, Blake avoided taking the bus and instead rode his bike to school.
Oldson admitted there are things she doesn't know because she's never rode the bus, but she feels there is room for improvement on her son's bus.
"I'm comfortable with the safety level on the buses, but I do think the district needs to look at how some drivers react to children," she said. "The drivers say a lot of things and threaten kids, but when it comes down to telling parents what happened, it has to come through the kids."
Bus drivers admit that the hours of dealing with misbehaving youngsters does take a toll on them.
"I think eventually you lose your mind," joked fellow bus driver David Thompson.
Thompson, whose route covers about 26 students who live along Bainbridge Road, said he feels all the Jackson drivers have a good relationship, which makes the job easier.
"It's just like family. You've got to live with 'em, so you might as well get along with 'em," he said.
That may be more true for Thompson than other bus drivers. His wife, Connie, has been a bus driver with the Jackson School District for 23 years. His brother and sister-in-law also drive buses for Jackson.
Thompson's philosophy on child behavior is simple:
"If kids know what you expect, they tend to behave better," he said. "And if you want respect out of kids, they have a right to expect you to at least know their name."
Thompson's theory seems to work -- he's only had to turn in one misconduct slip for student misbehavior to school administrators in the three years he's been driving. By contrast, Woods said she usually deals with three or four misconduct slips daily, mainly for behavior such as standing up or shooting paper wads.
"I prefer creative discipline," Thompson said. "Kids would rather write 'I love my bus driver' 50 times than get written up."
Thompson said his problem isn't with the kids on his bus, it's with other motorists who violate state laws and endanger students by ignoring his stop sign and arm-guard.
"Just last week, one of my kids was ran off in a ditch because a driver ignored my sign," he said.
'I don't tolerate bullies'
Like Parker, Thompson is familiar with the recent criticisms of the bus system.
"I don't tolerate bullies. I want kids to have a safe environment coming and going to school," Thompson said.
Jackson resident Ed Meadows said his children, C.J. and Jacob, have never had a problem on Thompson's bus.
"We've been happy with the bus service," Meadows said. "When it's raining or the weather's bad, the driver will drop them off in front of the house instead of making them walk two blocks down the hill from the normal drop-off."
Woods, who has served as transportation director for the past five years, said she feels the district has a good rapport with parents when it comes to the bus system.
"We're the first example of school students see in the morning, and we're the last thing they see in the afternoon," Woods said. "We would hope if a child has a problem they would let somebody know, whether it's the bus driver, a parent or a principal."
In the past two years, Woods has worked to develop a 70-page transportation handbook which gives an in-depth explanation of various procedures and driver expectations.
Woods holds a safety meeting once a month with all the drivers. The district has received the Excellent Fleet award from the Missouri State Highway Patrol and Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education five years in a row for passing inspections with high marks.
All in all, Jackson bus drivers say there's only one reason to do the job they do day in and day out -- they love it.
"There are good times, and there are bad times," Parker said. "But it's rewarding and I enjoy the kids."
335-6611, extension 128