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Don’t toss drivers under their buses because of Cleveland case

Updated: May 15, 2013 8:40AM

The case of Ariel Castro, the Cleveland man charged with kidnapping and raping three women in an unimaginable decade-long ordeal of imprisonment and torture, is so shocking, that a horrified fascination/revulsion sets in — part of the average reader wants to know everything, to find a detail that may help make sense of the unthinkable, while another part just wants to flee from a story of such disturbing cruelty.

Each of us bring our own baggage to this — parents wonder about the girls’ parents being reunited with their daughters, neighbors speculate what it’s like to learn that the house next door is a chamber of horrors.

And bus drivers, understandably, focus on the fact that the suspect was a bus driver.

“Everybody on the news has been using the term, that Ariel Castro was a bus driver,” said Michael Thomas, a school bus driver in District 303 in St. Charles. “It throws a black cloud over all bus drivers everywhere, even though this guy was fired as a bus driver because he didn’t cut the mustard.”

Thomas has a point. Bad apples seem to harm the reputation of some professions more than others. No matter how many dirty cops turn up, people still tend to respect the police. But let a postal worker commit a crime, and even if it isn’t said aloud, people nod and think, “Another one goes postal.”

I never wondered about where bus drivers fit on this scale, but bus drivers obviously do.

“Any time anything comes up, it’s like ‘Oh, there’s another bus driver,’ said Thomas, 63, who began driving after retiring from a career selling and repairing X-ray equipment. “It’s just derogatory, for all the hard work we put in, for us to be thrown in with a person like Castro, or that limo driver [accused of driving drunk, he was also a bus driver].”

Someone should speak up for bus drivers.

“We’re highly trained and highly skilled,” Thomas said. “You cannot have a criminal record of any kind. Our motto at District 303 is ‘Great safety record and great service to our students.’ ”

Only about 5 percent of Chicago Public School students take the bus, and the majority of those are special needs students; CPS doesn’t directly employ bus drivers, but count 1,600 working for 20 vendors. They’re put through a “pretty rigorous” screening, including random drug tests, according to a CPS spokesperson, and, next year all drivers will be watched over by video cameras.

Thomas’ workday starts at 5:30 a.m., inspecting his bus. Then he drives the elementary, junior high and, finally, high school students to school, has a break from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., then reverses the process, taking the kids home. He’s done by 4 p.m.

Sounds like hard work, I suggested.

“Really, the hardest part of the job is getting up at 4 o’clock in the morning,” Thomas said. “We have strict rules we are under regarding how we deal with student mishaps.”

What kind of student mishaps?

“Students get sick on the bus,” he said. “The worst thing is dealing with parents who are inebriated.”

After driving for seven years, any changes that he has noticed in kids riding the bus?

“They’re pretty much the same as always,” he said. “We use the term, ‘kids will be kids.’ Kids are getting a lot smarter than they used to be — knowing more, more aware in the world, plus getting an attitude of entitlement. They say, ‘I will do what I want and my parents said I can do that.’ ”

A school bus driver can be drawn into some unexpected areas of a child’s life.

“Sometimes students on the bus are in the middle of a divorce,” he said. “The mother and father are fighting, one is under court orders not to see the child, and one may try to get a son or daughter off the bus.”

That’s a big responsibility; then so is driving a bus filled with children.

“A lot falls on the driver,” he said. “People tend not to realize. We’re guaranteeing their safety. Soon as a student gets on the bus, that student is under the umbrella of the driver.”

The job does have its occasional joys.

“At my age, I don’t have little kids anymore,” said Thomas. “I raised two children, now I have grandchildren. So dealing with the little kids — last week, everybody was making homemade projects for Mother’s Day. I get to see that. Occasionally, kids make things for the bus driver. It’s nice to go put things on the refrigerator again after not having them for 20 years.”

Parents already respect bus drivers, he said. They just might not realize it.

“They entrust their children to us,” Thomas said. “They’ll stand at the bus stop to guard their children and then drive away the moment when their child steps on that bus. They should feel safe and secure that their children are in good hands, will get to school safely, will get there on time, and we will bring them home safely and on time. People should have a good feeling about their school bus driver.”

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