Meet the drivers
"For many students, the first person they'll see when they leave their house is their bus driver, and Charlene is here to meet them with a positive attitude," said Cartersville Assistant Superintendent Ken Clouse.
Charlene Agan drives Cartersville bus 30 every morning and afternoon. Both she and Bartow bus 154 driver Candie Lingerfelt share a common bond as bus drivers -- they both have children in their respective school systems who ride the bus.
"I look after these kids like I was driving for my own," Agan said on the way to her first stop on the morning of Aug. 18.
Bus drivers are required to have safe driving records and submit to background checks that include providing fingerprints to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
"We do a pre-employment drug screening and bus drivers are subject to random drug testing also," said Bartow County Director of Transportation Jody Elrod. "And what the state of Georgia requires is at least 50 percent of your school bus drivers have to be randomly drug tested throughout the year."
Both school systems also ride along with the drivers with and without students to monitor driving skills and to make sure they follow the proper safety procedures.
"We have to have the best [drivers], considering the precious cargo we are carrying," Clouse said.
Clouse and Elrod said the bus is an extension of the classroom in that the same rules apply. If a student is not behaving properly, the bus drivers are expected to address the situation in the same manner as a teacher.
"They're taught from pre-K to elementary all the way up through the fifth grade what's expected of them once they get on the bus," Agan said, "but they are children so you do have to remind them."
In order to keep students around their peers, there is assigned seating for elementary school students. Each school bus also is equipped with at least one camera to keep an eye on the driver and on the riders in case there is a problem on the bus.
"If I see a situation on the bus where students are misbehaving, I separate [the students] and tell them to stop," Lingerfelt said while waiting for students to get on the bus at Clear Creek Elementary School on the afternoon of Aug. 17. "Most of the problems the kids have are petty and once you get on to them they usually stop. We hardly ever have to review the [video] tapes, but we can if we need to."
If a parent feels their child is having problems on the bus, Clouse and Elrod said the most important thing a parent can do is contact the school, not address the driver at the bus stop.
"Our drivers are available to talk to just like teachers are, and you don't interrupt a teacher's class," Elrod said.
Clouse said any delay at the bus stop could mean students are late to school.
Elrod said younger elementary school students are dropped off and watched to make sure they make it inside their home if arrangements weren't made for a parent to wait at the bus stop.
"I'd say 99 percent of parents with kindergarten, first grade, second-graders, they're going to meet them at the bus stop or have somebody there to meet the bus, so that's really not an issue here," Elrod said.
In case arrangements haven't been made for the student to make it home, the driver takes the student back to the school.
"We only drop off students 8 years old and under if we know an adult will be at the location," Clouse said.
Clouse and Elrod said rules are in place for when students leave the bus as well. For example, the bus will not go to a stop that requires a student to cross Highway 41.
Preparing for the ride
Both Bartow and Cartersville check their buses for maintenance issues based on a state model before and after they depart to transport students.
"We're all about safety. Each bus has to be inspected by the [Department of Motor Vehicles] every year," Elrod said. "They actually send [the buses] to the [Department of Motor Vehicles'] shop, and it's all safety-related things that they're looking for."
He said this includes checking emergency exits and any leaks.
"In addition to that, the state of Georgia requires that every school bus be inspected and serviced every 20 school days," Elrod said.
County bus 154 is one of the 30 school buses in the county that does not have air conditioning.
"We have as many air-conditioned buses as any other school system of our size," Elrod said.
The systems have a rotation schedule for acquiring new buses through the state with air conditioning, using the older buses as reserves.
If there's an accident
In the case of a maintenance issue or if a bus collides with a foreign object or vehicle, both Bartow and Cartersville bus drivers contact their respective departments and every bus within the city or county is also reached by radio.
Some question the safety of school buses because of the lack of seatbelts. Elrod addressed this issue by saying that, although seatbelts can prevent injuries, it would be more dangerous to restrain a bus full of children for fear of them not being able to reach emergency exits.
"It's safer for a student to be on a bus than in the back seat of a car," Elrod said. "The key to safety is that they're seated properly."
Although the buses are equipped to seat up to 72 students -- three to a seat -- both Clouse and Elrod said crowded buses were not an issue.
"We probably have room on most of our buses to add more students, but we don't because we don't have the time," Elrod said.
Clouse echoed Elrod's statements.
"We could fit 72, but that would be pretty tough with middle school and high school kids," Clouse said.
Both school systems are required to report any incident in which a bus collides with a foreign object, such as a light pole, or with another vehicle.
Elrod said there are about 15 reports each year and the city reports about five. The county has 145 buses, while the city has 26.
When the buses hit the road, local law enforcement steps in to help ensure the bus drivers are operating the vehicles properly and that other vehicles are stopping for the bus.
Maj. Mark Givins, head of uniform patrol division for the Bartow County Sheriff's Office, said the department is contacted about drivers who run the school bus stop signs or who violate other traffic laws near the bus an average of five times per month. He said when the department receives information concerning a violator's license plate number, they're able to follow up on the individual.
"When we get [the calls], we go directly to the supervisors and we hit them pretty hard," Givins said. "Somebody's either following the bus or they're sitting up in that area watching where [the violations] are taking place."
According to the Bartow County Probate Court, failure to stop for a school bus results in a $400 fine, 20 hours of community service and probation.
No violators were noted during The Daily Tribune News' ridealongs.
Providing a service
While the school systems agreed that buses need to be upgraded and each year the routes have to be tweaked for efficiency, they also emphasized riding the bus was a privilege, not a right.
"There is no law in place that says a school system has to provide a bus service," Clouse said.
How early, long and hot? [INFO BOX BREAKOUT]
Cartersville bus 30 -- 6:45 a.m. first stop, Latimer Road, Cartersville, arriving at Cartersville Elementary School shortly before 7:45 a.m.
Bartow bus 154 -- pick up at CCES at 2:30 with the first drop at Pleasant Valley Road at 2:42 p.m. The longest route was from Adairsville High School at 3:30 p.m. to Clear Lake Drive at 4:25 p.m.
The high was at about 97 degrees at 3:15 p.m., but dropped within minutes to 93 and 92 degrees and there was a constant breeze due to windows being down. The surface temperature on the floor of the bus reached 120 degrees.
Students from CCES were quiet about the heat, smiling and talking to their assigned seat partner.
The AHS students were more vocal, with one student commenting, "It's so hot I could die," with another responding, "But this is one of the coolest days we've had on here."
Both school systems said they hope to have all route buses air conditioned in coming years.