DOBSON — Early rollout of a school bus seat belt program has been light so far, but putting seat belts on school buses has been well received by school employees.
Surry County Schools has about 100 buses in use at its 18 campuses. Over time, all of the buses will be rotated out of service and replaced by new buses with three built-in shoulder/lap belts in each seat.
For now, the county district has eight buses with belts, and Mount Airy City Schools has one.
Rodney Hardy, county schools director of transportation, said the central bus garage is expecting to receive more buses with belts next year. The Dobson department handles bus servicing for Mount Airy, Surry County Schools and Elkin districts.
The new buses also have on-board cameras so that school officials could observe how the students reacted to the new seats. Hardy said video from the first day of school showed most kids sat down and immediately buckled in because they are used to using them in cars. A few had to be told to fasten.
The goal was to have kids be 100-percent compliant by October, and that did happen for the rides home, said Hardy. Some of the morning riders have to be reminded still because they are sleepy kids.
By requiring kids to stay buckled in until their stop, the bus drivers have found a nice side benefit: fewer disciplinary issues. Because the children aren’t getting up and moving around, maintaining order is easier for the drivers. In fact, Hardy said some of the other drivers can’t wait to get restraints on their buses.
As for the one vehicle at Mount Airy, Carrie Venable, public information officer, said, “Parents of students on that bus have been communicated with, and we have had no issues regarding behavior. We hope to receive more buses with seat belts in the future.”
Hardy told the county Board of Education that he hasn’t seen an increase in ridership so far, but that could change as more buses with restraints cycle into the system.
A common reason given for using parent pickup is that parents worry for the safety of their children. Seat belts provide protection in case of accidents, and if the restraints also reduce wrongful behavior, then schools possibly could see more kids going back to riding buses.
Of course, since seat belt use is required, Hardy said a plan needed to be put into place in the event some student refused to wear a restraint. He presented the school board with a policy that was accepted unanimously.
Venable said that policy adjustments and additions will be evaluated in the future for the city district.
The policy adopted by the county states, “School buses are the safest form of transportation for students and the use of lap/shoulder belts supports that level of safety. Surry County Schools has agreed that students are required to use lap/shoulder belts when riding on a school bus equipped with that technology.
“Another important factor in the seat belt implementation program is follow-through and accountability for students wearing the lap-shoulder belts. Based on interviews with districts in other states, this is most commonly achieved by working closely with school principals and school bus drivers to hold students accountable for school bus behavior.”
For kids that simply forget to buckle in, the driver can give a reminder. However, for those that either refuse to strap in or that refuse to stay strapped in, then comes a penalty.
On first offense, the driver gives a warning and will explain to the student how to buckle in and the importance of why to wear the belt.
On the second offense, the driver gives a verbal warning but also informs the school’s assistant principal. Then the assistant principal contacts the child’s parent(s) and notifies them that the next offense will result in a one-day suspension from bus travel.
The third offense results in one-day suspended from the bus. A fourth offense results in three days off the bus. The penalties get longer with each offense. Fifth offense equals five days off; sixth offense is seven days off; seventh is 10 days off. By the eighth offense, the child can no longer ride the bus for the remainder of the school year.
In this first semester of belt requirement, Hardy told the board there hasn’t been a single case where a student had to be removed from a bus for repeat violations.
Reach Jeff at 415-4692.