By Caitlin Switzer

MONTROSE- When an 85-year-old driver pulled out in front of a school bus at Highway 90 and Niagara Roads on Oct. 10 and received a citation for careless driving, it was far from an isolated incident. However, the citation re-focused attention on an issue many local parents take for granted–the safety of the roughly 1,200 Re-1J students of all ages who depend on busses for transportation to and from school each day.

Montrose County School District Re-1J contracts with First Student, the largest school bus service operator in North America and one of the world’s largest transportation providers. And while busses rarely make headlines here, First Student itself is no stranger to public scrutiny. After all, this is a massive company providing student transportation in 38 states in the U.S. and eight provinces in Canada. The fleet includes 49,000 busses and serves 6 million students twice a day, according to the company’s web site. However, national and international headlines can paint a somewhat grim picture: First Student was  slammed with a $1.6 million lawsuit last year filed by drivers in New Jersey for wage violations; and an internal memo uncovered by News4 KMVO in St.Louis from the company’s president reveals incentives being offered to employees who cut costs on things that would negatively affect student safety.

Bullying and safety issues have also surfaced in some First Student communities; First Student itself cites a 2010 study that found 44 percent of students say they have witnessed or experienced bullying on the bus. Recent headlines bear this out: On Sept. 12, Fox News Channel 2 in St. Louis reported that a sixteen-year-old Missouri girl named Ashley Bennis was attacked by a male student on a First Student bus and ended up with a black eye, while a story in the Hamilton Record of Edmonton in Canada, detailed the experience of a six-year-old who was beaten by another child in an unprovoked attack while coming home on a First Student school bus last week.

Here in Montrose, however, local schools take a strong stance against bullying, and  Montrose County School District Re-1J is highlighted on the First Student blog as one that is setting an example by taking a proactive response to bullying.  The company operates 36 routes here, both morning and evening, notes First Student Manager Scott Harold.

“Probably the biggest challenge our drivers face here comes from other drivers,” Harold said. “They are not always paying attention–we are out there with 40-foot busses, but they just don’t see us.

“Never drive around a school bus,” he said. “We’re hauling your kids around–help us get them there safely!”

Student behavior can also be a factor.

“Once a driver is on the bus and has kids on the bus, he needs to keep them quiet and facing forward–and keeping a bus ‘ruly’ can be tough,” Harold said. “We see the bus as an extension of the classroom–if you don’t do it in the classroom, don’t do it on the bus.”

Students tend to be more active on the ride home, after a long day of school, Harold noted.

When it comes to bullying, First Student and Re-1J take a zero-tolerance approach, he said. Complaints are resolved on the following day, and if verified, violators are issued a warning and taken off the bus for three days. Those with repeat infractions can lose bus privileges.

Although busses are equipped with cameras, complaints are not always easy to verify because it can be difficult to see smaller students on video, Harold said. To make sure no child is ever left on a bus, drivers are required to check every seat on every bus for children at the end of the day.

When it comes to drivers, CDL requirements require they be age 21 or over and pass physical aptitude and drug tests. Harold said it is a company “norm” for drivers to wear a name tag and be on a first-name basis with students, and for those hired to be comfortable around children.

No top end age limit has been established for First Student drivers, he said.

Over the past ten years, bus ridership in RE-1J schools has remained remarkably stable according to RE-1J statistics, from 35.26 percent of total students (according to annual October count statistics) in 2004-2005 to a peak of 42.36 percent of students in 2005-2006 back down to 36.81 percent in 2013-2014. The district’s total transportation operating budget over that time period has risen from $1,219,864,81 to $1,671,789.99.

It is more cost-effective for a rural school district to hire a private bus contractor than to own and maintain its own bus fleet, Re-1J Superintendent Mark MacHale said.

“It’s a market-based business decision,” he said. “The profit margin is small for First Student, but when we do it ourselves there is no profit at all.  A private company can pass costs on to the consumer, but a school district can’t.   So we put the service out for bid, and First Student is the only company that put in a bid. A local bus company would be wonderful, but realistically they would need to have at least 24 to 27 busses or even more. And recruiting drivers can be difficult.”

Despite its size, First Student does a good job locally of communicating with the school district, and is purchasing five new busses for local routes this year, he noted.

“Like many things in life, it looks simple from the outside,” MacHale said. “But when you look behind the scenes, this is a huge enterprise. From GPS tracking, drug testing, to antilock brakes and cameras, there is technology embedded in everything they do.

“Driving a bus is a really rewarding job, but it is also very stressful. People worry about their kids–our drivers must have a commercial driver’s license, pass a drug test, and work a split shift.”

The work day of a school bus driver begins at 5 a.m., and ends at 4 p.m., with hours off in the middle of the day, he said.

“It’s not full time, and it’s not a high paying job,” MacHale said. “But getting kids safely to school is a calling for our drivers, and they take that responsibility very seriously.  Student safety is the number one priority, and I feel good about that. But it can be hard enough driving your own kids around–imagine having 72 of them.”

Drivers are always being recruited, he said, and training is provided to qualified applicants. And while many school bus drivers tend to be retirees, they are all capable of handling a tough job–rigorous testing ensures only the most capable individuals are hired.

“We hire people for their ability to drive, follow safety protocols and exert some discipline,” he said. “We have a number of older drives, but they are responsive people with great safety records. If they are not safe, we pull them from their routes.”

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Statistics show that School busses are designed to be safer than passenger vehicles in avoiding crashes and preventing injury; school busses keep an annual estimated 17.3 million cars off roads surrounding schools each morning , and that School busses are the safest mode of transportation for getting children back and forth to school.

Oct. 20-24 marks the National Association of Pupil Transportation’s celebration of National School Bus Safety week. This year’s theme is, “At My Stop, You Stop!”