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Transportation director speaks to Valley Kiwanis

VALLEY — In close to 20 years with the Chambers County School District Benji Mitchum has been a classroom teacher and coach, assistant principal, principal and is now the school district’s transportation director.

He’s been in his present position since last July, having succeeded Mike Frazier, who retired.

Mitchum was the guest speaker at Wednesday’s meeting of the Kiwanis Club of Valley. He said he’s learning new things every day but really misses those hugs he used to get from kindergarten students arriving at Huguley Elementary School in the morning.

“Our number one goal now is to safely get kids to and from school five days a week and to keep them safe in their extracurricular activities,” he said.

He has a sterling safety record to maintain. While there have been accidents involving Chambers County school buses over the years there haven’t been any children injured as far back as anyone can remember.

“We’ve had zero injuries on buses, and that’s a safety record we want to maintain,” Mitchum said.

The school district has a total of 59 buses.

“They run 73,000 miles every month, and 730,000 miles a year,” he said. “We transport children from their homes to elementary, middle school and high schools every school day and get them back home in the evenings. We also transport students to and from the Career Technical Center in the middle of the day.”

About 1,750 K-12 students ride the bus in Chambers County every school day. Around 750 are bused to and from Career Tech each school day.

Mitchum credits the district’s bus drivers for the good work they have done in maintaining this no injury safety record for a long time.

He cites bus shop personnel Steve Threadgill, Lamar Talley, Terry Mangram, Mark Patterson and Laura Hull for what they do in keeping the buses rolling and keeping the children safe.

There are 47 routes for the morning-afternoon runs. There are four routes for special needs buses and two midday routes for the CTC. The special needs buses are equipped with wheelchair lifts.

A total of 77 licensed drivers drive these routes. This includes drivers, shop personnel, teachers and three substitute drivers.

These drivers, Mitchum said, attend an annual recertification class, have annual physicals, must maintain a clean driving record and go through drug and alcohol screening.

Anyone interested in being a school bus driver can take the certification course.

“That’s how we get most of our drivers,” Mitchum said. “When we hire someone we’d rather have an experienced driver who has come though our training program.”

Mitchum thanks the Chambers County Board of Education for maintaining an up-to-date bus fleet.

“All our route buses are equipped with GPS and camera systems,” he said. “The GPS uses Network Fleet from Verizon. This monitors the location and current status of every school bus. It tracks routes with time stamps, and in most cases, tracks fuel mileage and alerts you if there’s a mechanical issue. We can monitor where every bus is and we know how fast it is going. We can tell a parent at what time the bus will arrive at their home.”

The shop foreman will immediately get emails if there’s ever a problem with a bus.

Mitchum is most impressed with the camera systems the buses have. Images are stored on a hard drive and can be quickly retrieved in the event there is some kind of incident on the bus.

The new camera system going in will record what goes on both inside and outside the bus.

The biggest safety issue affecting school bus travel is motorists driving past extended stop signs when the bus is stopped on the road.

The new cameras will record the tag numbers of people who do this.

“We are very pleased with the support we receive from the cities and the county,” Mitchum said. “They quickly respond to road issues that need to be taken care of. Patrick Bolt with the City of Valley, George Green with LaFayette and Sam Copeland with the county are very good about doing this for us, and we appreciate it. Chambers County highway engineer Josh Harvill is very good in keeping us informed of possible road closings and upcoming construction. Their help has a lot to do with our running smoothly.”

Mitchum said the school resource officers do great work in keeping the schools safe. He said there’s a lot of misunderstanding out there about schools sometimes being in lockdown.

“To my knowledge this hasn’t happened here,” he said.

Mitchum explained that there are four levels of alert with a school lockdown being the most extreme.

The first level is heightened awareness.

This goes into effect when something like two kids fighting is taken place. The nest phase is to secure your area. The teacher locks the door, and the kids don’t leave the room. The third stage is to secure the perimeter. Mitchum said this took place in the recent past at Huguley Elementary School when the Farmers & Merchants Bank, located just across the street, was robbed.

The final stage is lockdown.

“We never had this (at Huguley),” Mitchum said. “Everything is locked until the police get there.”

Most school buildings are going to sophisticated camera and security systems. Most main entrances are locked. A visitor has to hit a buzzer and speak with someone in the office to gain entry.

The Raptor ID system is a new technique. A visitor must submit their driver’s license to be admitted to a school. If their license information shows that they are on a sex offender data base, a police officer will be there to greet them when they leave.

A security problem with Chambers County schools is that most buildings (especially Valley High) have multiple entry points.

“We were living in a different world when these schools were built,” Mitchum said. “We do have very good working relationships with our local law enforcement and fire/EMS agencies. They are very helpful in working with the schools on intruder drills. This often takes place after hours. If you drive by a school in the evening and a lot of cars are parked outside this could be going on.”