By PETER H. MILLIKEN
VINDICATOR TRUMBULL STAFF
WARREN -- School bus drivers can provide the eyes and ears of vigilance against terrorism, and a new training program to help them find and report suspicious activities was launched Friday.
"Our goal is to leave all these drivers with a heightened sense of awareness of what's going on around them. We want them to recognize the risks of terrorism and know what to look for so they can report new and dangerous instances," said Pete Japikse, who presented the training here to more than 200 drivers from Northeast Ohio and beyond.
Japikse, director of the office of pupil transportation at the Ohio Department of Education, gave the training Friday at Warren Western Reserve Middle School.
"The real way to prevent terrorism is to identify the perpetrators before they're allowed to commit any acts, so what we're doing is training drivers as to what to look for and how to report it," Japikse explained.
Parts of the training
Japikse advised drivers to do a more thorough daily pre-trip inspection, looking not just for mechanical defects, but also for suspicious packages and for something attached to the bus that doesn't belong and could be a bomb.
If drivers find suspicious packages, they should immediately report them -- not touch them -- and wait for appropriate authorities to arrive, he said.
Friday's training is part of a nationwide program titled "School Bus Watch: Anti-Terrorism Training for School Bus Drivers." The training is funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The goal is to offer the training to all 600,000 school bus drivers nationwide.
Bus drivers are in a unique position to observe daily activities and determine what is normal and what is not, said Katherine Baltes of Warren.
"We're everywhere, every day, at least twice a day. We cover every inch of Trumbull County," said Baltes, a bus driver and assistant Trumbull County facility manager with Community Bus Services Inc. of Youngstown and Warren.
"You may see something different today or some activity that is repetitive that shouldn't be repetitive," Baltes added. CBS, which coordinated the training here, is a private company that provides busing for 25 school districts in the Mahoning Valley.
"They're used to working with children, and they see things on a regular basis. They will be the first ones that can observe a difference and then can report it," Japikse said of bus drivers.
"The Warren City Schools were pleased to play a meaningful role in launching this new training locally," said Dr. Kathryn Hellweg, schools superintendent.
In the training, drivers are given a history of terrorism worldwide, background on potential threats to school buses and tips on how to prevent threatening events.
Each participating driver gets Ohio incident reporting forms and an individual Transportation Security Administration registration number to be used to officially report threatening or suspicious activity to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
In a letter to training participants, Hellweg wrote: "Unfortunately, school buses are natural targets for criminals and terrorists. Since 9/11, being alert to criminal and terrorist activity is more important than ever. Terrorists have targeted buses and school children in many areas of the world."
Since the July 7 terrorist bombings in London's public transit system, the U.S. Transportation Security Administration has stepped up development of the School Bus Watch program, which will be adopted by school districts across the nation in the next few weeks, she added.