Salena Torres, a school bus driver for Southwest Transportation Agency, won the North Region School Bus Driver of the Year Award, from the California Highway Patrol and the California Department of Education.
The nomination paperwork submitted by Agency Director Sandra Hoevertsz, for Torres, says she has been driving with Southwest Transportation Agency for over 18 years and is accident-free. That’s an even more impressive record of safe driving, given she has covered more than 232,000 miles in Fresno County in the Central Valley, located about 200 miles southeast of San Francisco.
But topping that accomplishment was what happened last November, when Torres was driving students from Reagan Elementary School in Kingsburg, California. They were returning home from a field trip, when they stopped at a gas station for students to use the restroom.
While stopped, a man boarded the school bus in a real attempted hijacking of the vehicle and its occupants. The CHP said Torres remained calm, even when the attacker grabbed her neck, shook her and demanded she give up her seat on the bus.
Torres remembered from her training to press the “ON” switch of the radio, which allowed all on-duty bus drivers to listen in on the situation, as well as the on-call radio control. Meanwhile, she was able to pull the keys out of the ignition, which triggered the bus Child Safety Alert System, CSAS. That alarm reminds drivers to walk the aisle and look for sleeping children at the conclusion of each route.
In this case, the CSAS distracted the hijacker and allowed Torres to hide the bus keys in her shirt, while she continued to broadcast details via the radio.
The man responded by grabbing Torres again by the neck and demanding the keys. But Torres was able to stay calm and answer his questions. Law enforcement said that fortunately, the man never touched any student, or made any attempt to grab a student.
Meanwhile, a teacher who had taken students to the restrooms, returned to the bus, saw what was unfolding and ran into the gas station to summon help. The gas station clerk arrived, and they were able to get the man off the bus. Within minutes, the police arrived and arrested the man.
“Salena Torres, when faced in the toughest of circumstances, responded and took action with the tools, resources and professional school bus driver training available to her. Her commendable actions were carried out with poise and composure that merit recognition. The fact is, on her watch, Salena Torres ensured that every kid she transported that day got home safe to their families,” noted the commendation.
Torres also received a surprise award, the Commissions Medal of Distinction, for her contribution to the state.
Bail for the hijacking suspect, Christopher Rey Martinez, was initially set at $27,500. He was charged with attempted kidnapping and attempted carjacking. Since then, however, the bail has been increased to $2.295 million, and Martinez was charged with an additional 41 counts of attempted kidnapping of someone under the age of 14.
School Bus Driver Day
The award was presented to Torres one day before School Bus Drivers’ Day, April 22. That day, which originated in California, is now celebrated nationwide.
In commemoration of the day, Jon and Mary Held, owners of Held Bus Service for Kenyon and Wanamingo Schools in Minnesota, commissioned a local artist to produce original plaques for each of their school bus drivers.
Another school district in Los Angeles served lunch to its drivers.
“It’s wonderful to work with people who are of one mind and actually love each other as well as our jobs,” said Lonnie Whitten, director of transportation at Village Christian School, on a School Transportation News Facebook post.