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Riding The Rowdy Routes School Bus Veteran Helps Drivers Keep Control

Sun., Nov. 30, 1997

Tuesday, Sept. 2: Basic confusion - students trying to rush the stops. Moving around the bus and yelling. Hanging out the windows. I had to pull the bus over and refuse to move until I could safely drive them home.

-School bus driver Pat Doten’s journal entry

She wanted to go home herself. Give up her day-old job as an expert bus driver and just go home.

Pat Doten’s 18 years of driving buses - and keeping control of her passengers - had earned her Laidlaw Transit’s toughest position: driving the rowdiest routes in Spokane.

Take the routes that other drivers dodge like roadkill and, well, fix them.

Doten knew what to expect from her new assignment. She’s driven so long she automatically stops at railroad crossings, even on weekends, in her Ford Contour.

On rowdy routes, every day seems like Friday, or a full-moon day, or the day before a holiday. Every driver knows that on those occasions, kids are wired like the Las Vegas Strip.

She got a new title - field support specialist - a special uniform, and a 40-hour work week - guaranteed. When she wasn’t driving, she would help other struggling drivers.

Two weeks ago, Doten rushed to help Jeff Belknap, who parked his bus for more than an hour in north Spokane as kids cried, cursed and warbled a profane version of “It’s a Grand Old Flag.”

Doten pulled two sobbing girls onto her lap to distract them from angry parents pounding on bus doors and calling Belknap a kidnapper. (Drivers aren’t supposed to let children off anywhere but their regular bus stops.)

Joe Madsen, Spokane School District 81’s security chief, brainstormed the plan to assign the toughest of the district’s 138 routes to six of the best drivers. They’ll spend three months or so “training” kids to behave before moving on to another problem route, and then another.

District 81 donated $10,000 to the cause; Laidlaw another $10,000.

Madsen himself wouldn’t consider trading places with any of the district’s 156 drivers, whose wages start at $6.75 an hour. He compares even the best school buses to dysfunctional classrooms.

“We have twice as many kids as in a classroom, and half as much space,” he said. “Then ask the teacher not to face the students, and then drive down the road. Then tell them not to send kids to the office, because there is no office.”

It’s not so easy for kids, either. Ever dream about school buses? Dream researchers say they symbolize something many people have trouble doing: surrendering control.

So Doten wasn’t surprised when, on Day 6 of her new route, a half-dozen kids went on a rubber band rampage, zinging the multicolored bands over her head.

Her sin? She strictly enforced the rules posted high on the wall, next to the body fluid cleanup kit: Obey the driver. Remain seated. Keep the noise down. Keep all parts of body inside bus.

Twelve rules in all.

Doten did flinch a little on Day 9, when a Shaw Middle School student boarded the bus wearing a neck brace.

She is trying to say I stopped suddenly and on purpose to snap her neck last night. Not at all true.

Doten produced a video from the camera near her wide rear-view mirror to prove it.

By the month’s end, some journal entries showed a hint of humor.

I was informed tonight that I was fat and ugly - not a major news flash but not something I put up with.

Doten warned the students she’d swap mischief for citations, and enough citations can bar a kid from the bus. By late November, one girl had four.

Drivers aren’t allowed to touch kids or determine their discipline - a job left to principals who know the children better, Madsen says.

Doten relies on other strategies, moving boisterous students to the front, separating them from friends, talking with them privately.

During the two days before Thanksgiving break, Doten glanced frequently from the road to the tattle-tale rear-view mirror, scanning the wiggly bodies filling 11 rows of brown vinyl seats.

The pre-holiday adrenaline could skyrocket. The time was also approaching to wean herself from the bus and its passengers from Shaw Middle School and Willard Elementary School. Were they ready?

The first day, the Willard kids piled on, their bangs dripping from a light snowfall. “I’m going to kill you with a snowball!” someone yelled.

“A snowbow!” repeated a tiny boy with a Halloween pumpkin grin.

Doten told a girl to stop waving a - a what? - an inflatable, oversized pink-and-blue hammer.

Another girl, her hand a smear of fake tattoos, shoved a boy who found her ink stamps on the floor and refused to hand them over.

When the bus stopped, students spilled into the aisle. “Whoa!” Doten said. “That’s not the way we unload the bus. One seat at a time.”

The Shaw kids were even louder, swapping jokes involving body parts and bathrooms.

“Why did the hamburger fly south for the winter?” asked a girl, who blew a big, purple bubble that exploded on her nose.

“To warm its buns!”

“I’m going to the Rose Bowl,” announced a boy.

“No you’re not,” said his seatmate. “You can go to the toilet bowl but not the Rose Bowl.”

“I ate beans for breakfast. Toot toot! Toot toot!” chimed in a boy near the front of the bus. Farther back, a contest ensued to see who could mimic the grossest fart noise.

The final day before the four-day Thanksgiving weekend, Doten was braced. But the ride was fairly routine. A girl scolded the boy who ate beans the day before when he drew a butt with ears in condensation on a window. He erased it.

Not all kids prattled like junior auctioneers. Some escaped to the quieter front seats. Others leaned back and watched the world outside flash by like a silent movie.

A boy who rarely spoke above a whisper flossed his teeth with a candy wrapper. A seventh-grader pulled on headsets and listened to heavy metal on a portable radio with two batteries taped in the back.

“A lot of people yell at the bus driver, but she’s really calm,” he said. “I don’t see how she can take it.”

Just then, a blond boy scrawled “Help me please” backward on the window. Doten jumped in. “Excuse me, but you’re beyond help. Erase it, please.”

Just before a brilliant fuchsia sunset spilled across the sky, the last passenger climbed off Doten’s bus.

She reached for a broom and began her daily ritual of sweeping up leaves carried in on damp sneakers.

She lifted each seat, checking for surprises. Sometimes she finds crumpled homework, hats, jackets, food - once even a used tampon. Nothing today.

Nearby, another driver’s holiday break wasn’t starting so smoothly. Kids from Rogers High School were gutting a vinyl bus seat, tossing chunks of green foam filling at passing cars.

A man driving Garry Middle School students called dispatchers for advice. Two boys were swearing and mocking him, he said.

“There’s one having trouble,” Doten said. She chuckled softly, relieved it wasn’t her. She just might get home in time to make those pumpkin pies.

She swept the leaves onto the curb and closed the door.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo

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