Driver Gwendolyn Tillman doesn’t usually get between students fighting on the school bus.
“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. He’s 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.”
Calling a dispatcher is the protocol for any emergency on a school bus. And that has sparked some controversy in Florida.
In Hillsborough County, a school bus driver called the district when 7-year-old Isabella Herrera was having 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 they’re in the middle of a lawsuit over the circumstances surrounding Herrera’s death. But in Miami-Dade, Klein says 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.”
He says a dispatcher can call a School Resource Officer and a child’s parents, in addition to an ambulance and anyone else that may be needed.
But some parents argue school bus drivers should call 911 before they call anyone else.
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, none of the school buses have security cameras.
Little Pay, Big Responsibilities
In Florida, the average salary for a full-time school bus driver is $17,380 a year. It’s about the same in Florida’s largest school districts, Miami-Dade, Broward, and Hillsborough.
In Orange County, the average salary is $15,504.
In Duval, the average salary is $20,384.
Ronda Martin is with the Office of Labor Relations for Miami-Dade public schools.
She 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 — like Sharayne Milton.
“I try to do overtime at least every day, 5 days a week,” Milton said. “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.
It can be a minimum wage job that involves a lot of responsibilities.
School bus drivers follow a training curriculum from the Florida Department of Education which covers passenger management, traffic awareness, how to handle special needs students, and how to safely load and unload students.
Their role in keeping students safe was highlighted recently when 13-year-old Lourdes Guzman-DeJesus was shot and killed on a Miami-Dade County charter school bus in November.
A 15-year-old boy, also riding the school bus, brought a loaded gun with him and it accidentally went off.
Parents like Robin Godby of Pembroke Pines, Fla. say school bus drivers should just be in charge of driving students safely. She says there should be an aide on the bus watching students to make sure they’re behaving and are safe.
“I don’t think they get the support,” Godby said. “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.
“Your Eyes Have to Constantly Be Rotating”
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, 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.
In Miami-Dade, more than 75 percent of the district’s 1,305 school bus drivers are women, which can sometimes add to the challenge of disciplining students.
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.
“We’re parents as well,” said school bus driver Hanson. “And we have students and nieces and nephews who ride on the school bus and they’re not always the best either.”