Carrying the load: a driver’s journey

KINGSTON — As North Kitsap School driver Barb Fulton steered her No. 25 route bus down meandering Gunderson Hill toward the Miller Bay Road intersection, she gently squeezed the brake pedal, preparing to ease it to a halt.

Only the pedal didn’t push back, caving into the floor.

As the bus plunged down the hill toward the traffic passing by, Fulton pulled the emergency break.

But the bus barreled despite.

“Get down!” she yelled at her load of high school students. “Hold on!”

She then laid on the air horn to alert motorists as the bus continued perilously into the intersection. The frightened drivers of the cars cruising down Miller Bay came to a screeching halt.

With the end of Gunderson coming in the form of an embankment, Fulton waited for the right moment to pull off a seemingly hairpin-like turn. At once, she yanked the wheel as hard as she could.

The force of the bus pulled hard left but, somehow, her 17,400-pound vehicle didn’t tip.

Finally, on the straightaway of Miller Bay, the bus coasted to its eventual standstill, nearly at the intersection of Indianola Road.

A parent later called Fulton to both thank her for her heroics but also to jokingly ask whether toilet paper was standard issue on the school district’s buses.

“How she made the turn at the bottom without rolling the bus I’m not sure,” said Paula Abel, fellow bus driver who was one of the teen riders on her route that day. “It was truly amazing ... A bus ride to remember.”

That incident occurred when Fulton, now 56 and the North Kitsap School District’s most veteran driver, was just three years into what is now a storied 28 year career in 1980.

As with all bus drivers, Fulton experiences her share of close calls. But in spite of the millions of miles that she and all drivers chart through the school year, there is no safer form of transportation on the road. American students are nearly eight times safer riding in a school bus than with their own parents and guardians in cars, according to the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration.

The buses are also built to, “cushion the students like eggs in a carton,” said NKSD’s bus driver trainer Cat Peterson. In accidents, the interiors pad impacts so well that injuries are often completely avoided.

A bus driver’s job — transporting children to and from school safely — comes with tremendous responsibility. But their job description is much more extensive than just that.

They are professional drivers, safety patrol-people, keepers of the peace, counselors, lost and found managers, quasi-mechanics and even teachers all in one.

In an almost 30 year career, Fulton will also be the first to admit that she’s exercised each of those duties on the bus.

Discipline on school buses used to be much different, she said. You could drop children off for misbehaving, not allowing their return to the bus until their behavior improved. Now with the liabilities and lawsuit possibilities of the day, there is a complex process for discipline.

Fulton, however, has almost always had a very unique rapport with even her most troublesome riders. On one of her rougher routes during the ‘80s, a few of high school hooligans would get into fight frequently on the buses. She drew the line one day, putting herself in the middle of the fisticuffs. A student hit her so hard she fell to the ground in the bus.

The quarreling boys couldn’t believe what they’d done. They were speechless, Fulton recalled.

Their guilty faces led Fulton to let them off the hook, one last time. The incident shocked them so much that they never again caused trouble on the bus, she commented.

“From then on, they respected me,” Fulton said. “And I still wave to them when I see them in Kingston.”

As anyone who rode the bus remembers, there are varying degrees of discipline among the drivers. NKSD is no exception, Fulton noted.

“There are some who are more strict and some who are more lenient,” she commented. “I believe you need to let them know what the rules are.”

Now on her No. 66 Blue Bird bus, Fulton said she has one of the most pleasant groups of students she’s ever had. She added that she feels blessed with the students she’s carried.

“I’ve got a great load of kids,” she said. You’d hardly know they were on here.”

But that tranquility on the bus did turn out to be a problem on two occasions during her career.

Once on a run to the Bremerton Skills Center, Fulton, who was used to the typically quiet high school students, suddenly realized she had forgotten to pick up the kids at NKHS — and was halfway to Bremerton.

Her other incident was before the drivers had to return to the bus facility after work, often electing to drive them home each day. A load full of Suquamish kindergartners were so silent, as she backed her bus into her driveway for the night, she looked up and noticed some very curious bright eyes, still waiting to see their houses roll by.

Each day, Fulton, who calls the bus her “outdoor office,” runs children to and from Gordon Elementary and teens to and from North Kitsap High School as well as the skills center in Bremerton.

“I watch the ferry come in every day, the flowers bloom and the birds sing,” she said.

Fulton is also clearly popular with her riders. One student even attempted to give her a tip during this reporter’s visit on her route. She declined the offer.

“I can’t accept that dear,” Fulton said, although no NKSD bylaw indicates she cannot take tips. “Why don’t you make a card for me at school today?”

She said she loves getting to witness the youth of Kingston, the town she’s lived in her entire life, grow up.

Plus, she can’t say she minds the holidays, often spoiled with treats before winter break.

“When Christmas comes, I’m the one that walks off with a bus load of goodies,” Fulton said with a smile.

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