COVINGTON — With nearly 20,000 students attending 23 schools, the roads in Newton County can be pretty busy in the morning and again in the afternoon.
To help keep parents, students and others mindful of the extra traffic on the road, Newton County schools are recognizing School Bus Safety Week this week.
In addition to honoring the bus drivers who transport more than 11,000 students to and from school each day, the Newton County School System has also launched a new school bus safety curriculum for students.
“Student safety is the pupil transportation department’s No. 1 concern,” said Michael Barr, director of support services for NCSS. “Our bus drivers receive training each and every year, but it takes more than just a highly trained bus driver to keep students safe on the bus. Students must do their part and so must other motorists.”
As such, Barr said the school district is launching a new school bus safety curriculum that meets the requirements of the state Department of Education’s school bus safety curriculum. All students and teachers in the district will participate in the program, which kicked off at Heard-Mixon Elementary School on Tuesday.
The program was originally developed by Forsyth County Schools and is now being utilized by several school districts in Georgia.
Forsyth County’s school bus safety program is called “SOAR,” which stands for safe, orderly and respectfully. According to its website, families are encouraged to develop plans that include information about the students’ assigned stop locations, what routes the students and parents should take to and from the stop, safe “walking habits” and what to do (and what not to do) if a student experiences trouble on the way to the stop or at the stop.
The SOAR plan also includes prevention and intervention steps that are used by bus drivers to help students develop appropriate behaviors and habits. Consequences are also assigned if a student’s behavior on the bus fails to meet the safe, orderly and respectful expectations, the website states.
“Another concern is the failure of motorists to obey school bus laws,” Barr said. “The most dangerous time for our students is when they are boarding or disembarking the bus. Some motorists continue to pass buses when the red lights on the school bus are activated. This makes for a very dangerous situation.”
As part of a nationwide survey conducted last year, bus drivers in Newton County reported 109 school bus stop violations in a single day, according to a press release from NCSS. As a result, Newton County Schools in conjunction with the Newton County Sheriff’s Office launched a photo enforcement program in an effort to significantly reduce the number of violations that occur each day. Currently, 25 of the school system’s buses are outfitted with high-resolution cameras that capture photos and video of motorists who illegally pass school buses while students are boarding or disembarking at bus stops. Offending motorists are mailed a picture of the event and levied a fine.
“The goal of the program isn’t to fine motorists, it’s to reduce the number of violations,” said Barr. “Our school district has a fleet of 211 buses that travel over 2.3 million miles a year; on average that’s approximately 13,000 miles each day. They are carrying the most precious cargo we have — our students. And the only way we can ensure their safety is if bus drivers and students follow school bus safety rules and other motorists obey the traffic laws. It’s a shared responsibility that we all have.”