Drivers received certification and a School Bus Watch identification number, which they are instructed to use when calling the School Bus Watch program's toll-free number in emergencies. The hot line directs appropriate help to the caller.
Other Tri-State-area public school systems have not participated in the School Bus Watch training, officials said, but said drivers are vigilant when it comes to watching for suspicious behavior.
Ed Beck, director of pupil transportation for the Maryland State Department of Education, said that about 50 percent of the state's school districts have completed the School Bus Watch program. He said he expects that all of the state's school districts will have completed the program by this summer.
Washington County has not started the program yet, said Barb Scotto, the school system's transportation supervisor.
Robert Boylan, coordinator of transportation for Jefferson County (W.Va.) Schools, said that the school system's more than 100 bus drivers have not taken such training, but are instructed to report unusual activity during the course of their regular training.
Joe Walter, Jefferson County Schools director of attendance and crisis planning, said, "We simply say to people, 'It's dreadfully important to realize anything that is not as it should be, anything out of the ordinary ... Nothing is too stupid. If you see something, tell your immediate supervisor.'"
As an added security measure, cameras have been installed on all of Jefferson County's school buses, Boylan said.
"Security with our buses here is probably representative of most agencies within the state of West Virginia," he said. "We know our people. Our buses are kept in a secure lot."
Always on the alert
On the road, bus drivers have many responsibilities, many of which involve observational duties.
School bus passengers "often say you must have eyes in the back of your head," said Lew Stanley, a Washington County Public Schools bus driver.
Nolan and Stanley said bus drivers are aware of who normally is sitting in a car at a bus stop and react when they see a stranger. Stanley said she questions her passengers about unfamiliar faces.
"At a bus stop, if we see an unusual car there, a red flag goes up right away," Nolan said.
Stanley has used the middle names of her passengers as a verification method to test anyone with whom she's never seen.
Bus drivers have routes and routines, they said. They know when they will pass each other at a stoplight and when they will see familiar faces along their paths.
"You get used to your route every day. That's why everything out of the ordinary stands out," said Carolyn Christ, a Washington County Public Schools bus driver.
There was a time when a bus driver might have checked on a disabled vehicle and driver, but Nolan said that bus drivers no longer would offer assistance. Instead, a bus driver ordinarily would call police to help the driver, he said.
"A person flagging the bus down - once you open the door and allow them access, you're in trouble," Nolan said.
Stanley said that bus drivers use hands-free cell phones to call for help if they find themselves in dangerous situations. Berkeley County drivers have cell phones and two-way radios.
When someone approaches the bus, it more often than not is someone known to the bus driver, but regardless, no one other than the student passengers and authorized people are allowed to board.
"We will close the door on somebody," Stanley said.
Berkeley County Schools driver Mary Whittington recalled a scenario in which a driver tailgating her bus full of elementary school students stopped in front of the bus and approached her as students were loading. As the motorist walked behind the bus, Whittington already was on the phone with authorities, she said. The man eventually got back into his truck and drove away.
Scotto said bus drivers are instructed to give their orders to get away from the bus in a "broken record" style: "Please do not come on my bus, over and over, constantly and in a calm voice."
'Our eyes and ears'
Strangers aren't the only people who concern bus drivers. Those interviewed said they have been trained in how to notice unusual behavior among their passengers.
Stanley said she uses "HALT" - an acronym for hungry, angry, lonely or tired - four possible problems that could prompt one of her young passengers to behave in an unusual manner.
"Are you hungry, angry, lonely or tired?" Stanley said she asks the students.
Scotto said drivers are trained to interact with their students so they are more likely to be aware when students exhibit strange behavior.
"You learn your students and learn what their characteristics are. You learn the quiet ones and you learn when someone is acting differently," Scotto said. "It's so important that bus drivers and professionals realize their roles in recognizing those differences and not just turn the cheek."
Scotto said watching out for suspicious behavior goes both ways. She encourages other motorists to watch out for school buses.
"If their four-way flashers are on or their headlights go off or if the school bus is swerving, make the call," she said. "Be our eyes and ears."