HARRINGTON, Maine — School bus drivers were reminded this week that how to safely drive and operate a bus of students is not just about following the correct procedures and making sure the flashing warning lights work. Communicating with students and managing them are equally important.
That was a major emphasis at the safety conference for school bus drivers on Wednesday at Narraguagus High School.
The conference was one of six held in regions throughout Maine this spring, with the final one slated in Fort Kent on Friday. The safety training events are conducted by the Maine Association for Pupil Transportation, which also holds an annual conference later this summer.
Once a person passes the state tests to qualify for a license enabling them to drive a school bus, there is no required training thereafter, noted Dawn Coffin, transportation director for the Harrington-based RSU 37 school system, which has been hosting the regional conference at Narraguagus High School for five years.
“So that’s why MAPT was formed,” Coffin, who serves on the organization’s board of directors, said Tuesday in an interview prior to the conference.
The all-volunteer nonprofit, formed in 1971, sponsors the conferences so school bus drivers can improve their knowledge and skills, and it also is “the only voice for school bus drivers in Augusta,” said Coffin.
The conference featured a competition for drivers to test their skills that included a pre-trip inspection in which the drivers have a limited amount of time to check all the safety equipment on the bus in order to find some items that have been deliberately disabled. There also were four workshops on bus evacuations, mandatory reporting, and two dealing with students — positive communications and student management.
The regional conferences and an annual conference “give drivers training on new trends,” update them on new laws, and teach procedures to new drivers, said David Leavitt, MAPT president, who helped lead the conference.
“Drivers need the training because kids change all the time,” said Leavitt, director of support services for the Farmington-based RSU 9 school system. “Conditions … change, so that we need to have diverse drivers [who] can think on a moment’s notice and know how to react to kids and always working for student safety.”
Nearly 50 bus drivers were registered for the conference but about three dozen attended. About 1,000 were registered for all the regional conferences, according to Leavitt.
Lisa Gadway, an administrative assistant for the MSAD 49 school system in Fairfield, conducted the workshop on positive communications, suggesting how drivers should interact with and talk to students. She emphasized ways to talk to youngsters that were teaching, empathic, encouraging and noncritical.
Gadway also gave examples of what not to say. She warned against communications that could produce the “bus ride from …”
“Hell,” the audience responded.
The conferences are mandatory for the 15 bus drivers Coffin oversees as well as other people who drive their own cars to provide transportation for students with special needs and other circumstances. The drivers receive additional training in defensive driving as well as first aid and CPR.
“I require my drivers to attend,” said Coffin. “And I train all year long. I think training is the only way we’re going to stay safe and keep our kids safe.”
Jennifer Dennison, 31, of Wesley has been driving a bus for the Machias school system for two years. This week’s conference was her first.
“Definitely, how you speak to kids,” was one of the most important things she took away from the event, she said.
“I’ve been learning today,” said Dennison, “that … there’s other ways that we can speak to kids of different ages, and what may work better for some kids than others. So, the best thing is the do’s and the don’ts on how to speak to kids. It’s not just about driving the bus. It’s about how we talk to the kids.”
Wayne Grant, 68, of Cherryfield is a long-time school bus driver, and he transports students at Narraguagus High School.
“A review doesn’t hurt anybody,” said Grant, who called the conference “a good thing.”
“It’s all about student safety,” said Leavitt.