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A Day In the Life of a Brownsburg Bus Driver

Photography provided 

Have you ever wondered what makes a good school bus driver? Amberly Massingale knows because she’s been doing it for 19 years. She asserts that a well-skilled bus driver must be able to drive defensively through traffic while maintaining safety and control of the students in their care.

“School bus drivers have to multitask more than any other driver on the road with the most distractions,” Massingale says. “Not only do we need to be skilled at driving an extremely large vehicle, but we also need to be able to do it around other drivers who do not want to be caught behind us. All the while, making sure Johnny isn’t bullying Joe or telling Sally to sit down in her seat for the 20th time.”

Think about how difficult it is to concentrate in your own car with just a handful of passengers. What if you had 70-84 kids in your backseat? To navigate a large vehicle, pay attention to the road, be a defensive driver and still act as an authority figure to your students is multitasking at its best. Not to mention there are twice as many students on a bus as in a classroom and they’re all sitting behind you.

Though bus drivers don’t have eyes in the backs of their heads, every bus is equipped with cameras, which help minimize behavior issues, including roughhousing and bullying.

Jean Bottema, who has been driving for the Brownsburg Community School Corporation since November 2014, says a bus driver needs to be focused, friendly and willing to listen.

“There are days when you are the student’s person for first aid, guidance and just general questions and education,” Bottema says. “Most importantly, though, you are the first face they see in the morning and the last face they see at the end of the school day. You can either make or break a student’s day and that I take very seriously.”

Bottema, a lifelong resident of Hendricks County, was first drawn to the career when her husband was having some medical issues and she was looking for a career that would enable her to be more accessible to him.

“Where else can you get 14 weeks of vacation a year, have free time in the middle of the day, and pick up extra money through field trips?” Bottema says. “The job offered great flexibility in this stage of my life.”

Massingale’s entire school bus driving career has been with Brownsburg Community Schools. She started when her children were young and she was a stay-at-home mom. When finances got tight, she wanted to find a job that would help make ends meet and still allow her to be active in her children’s school lives.

“It was a perfect fit for me and my family,” says Massingale, who has seen the transportation system evolve a good bit since she first started working nearly two decades ago, transforming from a farm community to a diverse suburb of Indianapolis with the best schools in the state. The number of drivers necessary to service the entire corporation has grown significantly. So has the amount of routing that has to be accomplished to service the ever-growing area.

“If memory serves, we only had around 60 buses when I started,” she says.

Now, according to Nick Meyerrose, Coordinator of Transportation for Brownsburg Schools, the corporation owns 110 buses and employs 91 full-time bus drivers and 19 substitute drivers.

“We currently have 7,073 students scheduled to ride the bus,” Meyerrose says. “The corporation runs 147 routes in a day. This includes all general ed routes, special needs routes and special runs.”

The department is always looking to create not only the most efficient routes but also the safest ones. For instance, they pick up students on the door side of the bus so that children aren’t crossing county roads.

“Brownsburg has had the policy in place for a long time to have door side pick-up/drop-off on State and County roads for the safety of our students, but I’m astounded at the number of people who run our stop arms,” Massingale says. “A day doesn’t go by that [it doesn’t happen.]”

Video footage abounds on the internet that shows some of the dangerous ways aggressive drivers behave when they get antsy behind a bus. Some people try passing a bus on the right. Some jump the curb and go through a yard. In addition, buses have been hit by distracted drivers who are looking down at their phones rather than paying attention to the road in front of them.

It’s wise for the public to be cognizant of the fact that a school bus is 40 feet long. There’s eight feet to the bus behind the rear axle so when that turns, the part of that bus that’s behind the axle swings into the adjacent lane. Bottom line: exercise patience and give buses space.

“I don’t think people realize that when they pull out in front of you or run your stop arm how many lives they are putting at risk because we cannot stop those buses on a dime,” Bottema adds. “People also don’t seem to recognize how serious a bus accident can be. If it catches on fire, we have 90 seconds to get those kids off safely. That may not be a big deal when you only have 20 high school kids on a bus, but try getting 80 elementary kids off a bus in 90 seconds.”

Massingale has also had her fair share of close calls. For example, she’s had semi-trucks coming off of I-74 not bother to yield to oncoming traffic and pull right out in front of her. She’s also had cars pass her and then immediately slam on their brakes to turn into a parking lot.

Despite all of the pressures, Massingale insists that the kids make the job worth it.

“Children are the reason I come back each year,” says Massingale, who knows each student by name. “They know I care for them deeply, even when I’m calling them out for bad behavior.”

She also adds fun to each day. For instance, on Fridays with her elementary students, they listen to songs the students have picked (clean ones). They also have library days where students read to themselves or to a younger student.

“They share with me things they’ve accomplished in the classroom or exciting news from home,” Massingale says. “Nothing is better than to hear the laughter of a child.”

Bottema loves building a rapport with the kids as the semester progresses. It takes some time with the high school kids as they tend to be more standoffish, but the elementary kids warm up quickly.

“They cry at the end of the school year because they’re going to miss you and are excited to see you at the start of the school year,” says Bottema, who says the highlight of her year is enjoying Breakfast with Bus Drivers at Cardinal Elementary.

“I pick boys and girls — one from each grade level — so that upperclassmen get to know the kindergarteners,” she says.

Massingale says her most precious memory was from three years ago. She’d had surgery that kept her away from work for seven weeks. The Monday she returned to work and pulled up to each elementary stop, the children started jumping up and down and cheering.

“Many a tear rolled down my face,” she says. “My heart could not have been fuller.”

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