ROUND ROCK, Texas (KXAN) — Walking with a handfull of fellow bus drivers, Addie Allen steps out into the daylight from the Round Rock ISD Transportation East Facility.
Hundreds of buses sit glistening in the sun, an uncomfortable and sticky work environment up until a few years ago.
“They all have AC now,” Allen explains.
Straight ahead is the driveway she’ll soon exit.
The drivers’ afternoon break is coming to an end and before school lets out they’ll need to inspect their buses, a routine they do several times each day to help ensure the physical safety of the 15,000 students they transport.
However, this year there is a new safety focus that’s caught the drivers’ attention — keeping the students mentally healthy.
“It’s so important, what we do,” Allen said. “A lot of people look at it and, ‘They’re just bus drivers.’ No, that’s not what it is.”
Last year her role and responsibilities significantly expanded. In August 2018, Allen joined 300 other bus drivers and monitors trained in suicide prevention for the first time.
The training drew attention to behaviors Allen already knew about and asked her to tap into a skill set she already had: being observant.
In her 24 years of driving to campuses, homes, sporting events and back to the bus barn for the district, Allen has made a point of getting to know her riders on a personal level.
“How they are, what they do, their likes, their dislikes, their looks, their ways of doing things,” she said. “I mean you’ve just got to keep it in your mind going 24/7 when you’re driving.”
Allen said the training allowed her to take that detailed knowledge a step further. Not long after school started, the lessons learned played out on the seats of her bus. When Allen noticed a student’s unusual appearance and behavior one day, she reported it to a supervisor.
“She came out, and it was just totally opposite,” Allen said. “Me and my monitor, I looked up at her, she looked up at me, and we kind of just shook.”
Medics met the bus to help the student when it arrived on campus.
Just weeks before the start of the 2018-19 school year, Allen sat inside a training room along with 35 other eager bus drivers. At the front stood the district’s Future Readiness Coordinator Amy Grosso. This was one of eight similarly sized groups she’d be meeting with that day.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever trained a group so excited for information,” Grosso said.
With her background in mental health counseling, Grosso is the go-to person for this type of training.
She’d worked with plenty of students, teachers, and parents before but never bus drivers.
In this case, Grosso used a presentation developed by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention that, among other things, taught the bus drivers to look out for warning signs.
In Texas alone, 252 young people 10 to 19 years old ended their own lives in 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That number has been steadily rising since at least 2006 when the state saw 99 fewer suicides in that same age range.
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That includes students who talk about having no reason to live, or feeling trapped, have changes in their behavior including poor sleep, acting recklessly, withdrawing from activities and loved ones, and mood changes like depression, anxiety and irritability.
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“They realize they see these signs all the time, they could remember students, but they feel like they know what to do now,” Grosso said.
Each session took just 45 minutes, but drivers said it left a lasting impression.
Round Rock ISD Interim Transportation Director Tina Fausett talks about her drivers the way you’d expect a mother to brag about her child, full of pride.
“Our drivers are really good about coming in and saying ‘We’ve got an issue on a bus, we’ve got a child,’ and that’s just because they care,” Fausett said.
Armed with a Texas twang and heels on her feet, Fausett confidently navigated the hazards of the transportation facility while explaining how the district wanted to get outside its comfort zone during summer training.
“We thought, ‘Well, let’s do something different. Let’s not do the same thing over and over.” And so we decided we would go with the suicide training,” she said.
As far as she knows, Round Rock is the first and only district in Central Texas to train its drivers, a trend she hopes catches on in the surrounding areas.
The district doesn’t track tips specifically from bus drivers, so it doesn’t know how often they intervened. However, Allen is confident it’s working.
“I might have not noticed it the way I did if something didn’t stick from that class that says ‘Something is different here, maybe something is going on.’” she said.
If you or someone you know is experiencing emotional distress or suicidal crisis, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a free, 24/7 confidential service you can call at 800-273-8255. There is also a free text-message service that offers 24/7 support for those in crisis and can be reached by texting 741-741. If it’s an emergency, please dial 911. Find resources on the Save Our Students Support and Outreach page.