Bus stops, but cars go, driving mom to action

January 01, 1995|By Suzanne Loudermilk | Suzanne Loudermilk,Sun Staff Writer

Brenda Rotondo of Bel Air once again will be patrolling her son's bus stop when school reopens Tuesday. She'll be armed with a pencil and paper to jot down the license plate numbers of drivers who don't want to wait the extra minutes it takes 10-year-old Joey to board his bus.

"He walks like a little drunken sailor," his mother said. But his slow, uneven gait is a major accomplishment for the 45-pound boy, who she says is severely mentally retarded.

It is important to Joey's development, which is at a 10-month-old level, to let him walk the steps of the orthopedically equipped bus, Mrs. Rotondo said.

"If he was in a wheelchair, it would take even longer," she added. "The longest it's ever taken is five minutes."

In recent months, Mrs. Rotondo says she has seen drivers at the Bright Oaks Drive stop, honk their horns, make rude gestures, yell at her and illegally pass the school bus when its red lights are flashing. So, she has taken their license numbers and alerted the Harford County sheriff's office.

Sgt. Wes Picha, a traffic unit supervisor in the sheriff's office, says that when such a complaint is received, "We forward a warning letter to the [car's] owner. The only reason we don't charge them is that it could be another driver, not the owner."

If a parent presses charges or a police officer or school bus driver witnesses an offense, drivers can be taken to court.

Paul E. Welch Jr., supervisor of transportation for the county school system, acknowledges that it is rare for bus drivers to be able to make identifications when a car passes them. "They're usually so upset at the moment and worried about the child," he explained. "We have fits over people passing buses with red lights. It frightens us to death."

In addition, many people don't want to swear out a warrant against an offender because going to court is time-consuming, Mr. Welch said.

"They say it happens 1 million times a day in America, that people pass red lights on a school bus," he said.

"It's a daily occurrence" in Harford County, Sergeant Picha said. "But the [safety] record is pretty good, considering there are 930 miles of county roads and 1,200 miles of state roads, and the buses make three or four runs a day."

There has not been a fatal school bus accident in the county in 15 years.

"Every day, our people are out there saving lives," said Gary Ritz, an assistant supervisor of transportation for county schools. He is referring to the watchfulness of county school bus drivers, who transport 30,000 students each day.

Fifty of the county's 405 school buses are orthopedically equipped to carry the 250 to 300 county students who need their services.

"Motorists wonder what's taking so long," Mr. Ritz said of buses discharging and boarding such children. "But no stop takes more than 10 minutes. . . . People are in a big hurry to get where they're going. Maybe they should leave five minutes earlier."

"They probably have normal children," Mrs. Rotondo said. "I'm very, very upset. It's getting ridiculous. Every day this week [before Christmas], we've had problems. I want people to realize these are orthopedic buses."

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