As we all know, the challenge of transporting students with disabilities gets more demanding every day. Staying ahead of the curve requires a commitment to constantly evolving the knowledge, skills and training of the entire staff. While each school district or contractor has its own unique challenges, there are fundamental attributes that all good programs share in providing safe and efficient transportation service for special-education students. This article breaks down these attributes into five categories:
1. Pro-active training
2. Proper equipment
3. Pertinent information
4. Precise communication
5. Program monitoring
For obvious reasons, we call these the five P's. Keep in mind that this article is not designed to be comprehensive. Our hope is that it will provide you with tips and insights that will help you improve your transportation program, even on an incremental level.
1. Pro-active Training
Does your training program provide drivers and monitors of buses that transport students with special needs (for the sake of brevity, if not accuracy and sensitivity, we will hereafter use terms such as special-needs drivers and special-education buses) with more information and instruction than they need to do their jobs properly? Or are they given the minimum amount of necessary information to meet their job responsibilities? Special-needs drivers should know more - much more - than they'll ever need to know. That means that your training program needs to be rigorous in its diversity and depth. It also should be flexible and expandable to meet changing needs of special-needs students. In addition to the basic driver training program, your department should be presenting information to special-education drivers and monitors on the specific needs of their passengers. When necessary, the transportation director should help his staff gather the information. Many times they don't know how to approach teachers or physical or occupational therapists for information about a particular disability. This is where the director, who often has established a relationship with these people, can help. She can approach them on a different level and obtain the data much more quickly. Community resources also can be tapped for pro-active training. Doctors and nurses at local hospitals can be recruited for in-service presentations on a variety of topics. So can occupational and physical therapists. For specialized training on chronic diseases, consider approaching national organizations such as the Muscular Dystrophy Association, the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, the Autism Society of American and the Epilepsy Foundation of America. Their representatives are always eager to help you learn and will gladly send you material on how to assist children with these diseases. And their local affiliates might be able to send a representative to your facility for a hands-on training session.
Look beyond labels
Drivers and monitors also need to be trained to look beyond labels. For example, autism may be characterized by severe problems with communication and behavior. But each child who is autistic has his own functioning levels and capabilities. So if you put five autistic children on the same bus, you should expect that each of them will behave somewhat differently. Knowing the capability of each student is very important. Drivers and monitors need to pay attention to these details and perhaps even document them, depending on district policy. Another method of expanding the knowledge base is to have your drivers, monitors and driver trainers attend state and national pupil transportation conferences. Kentucky and Utah hold annual conferences devoted specifically to special-needs transportation. You might want to contact your state pupil transportation or contractor association about the possibility of creating a similar event.
2. Proper Equipment
Even with the proper equipment, the responsibility of transporting special-needs students is supremely challenging. Imagine how difficult it would be with the wrong equipment. We're going to assume that you have functional wheelchair lifts, tiedowns and restraints. There are a number of manufacturers of each of these components, giving you options if you prefer one tiedown system, for example, over another. If your fleet has different types of lifts, tiedowns and restraints, drivers and aides should be taught how to use each system. And their technique should be reviewed frequently by qualified personnel. It can't be stressed too much that you should read the product manual and follow the instructions, especially concerning routine maintenance. It's far better to spend time properly maintaining a product than replacing it.
New wheelchair standard
Drivers and monitors need to be fully instructed on the proper handling of student mobility devices such as wheelchairs. A standard for transportable wheelchairs is in the final stages of approval by the Subcommittee for Wheelchairs and Transportation, which is working under the auspices of the American National Standards Institute and the Rehabilitation Engineering Society of North America. The standard, WC/19, has been five years in the making. It specifies strength and geometric requirements for wheelchair securement points and occupant restraint anchorage points. It also provides requirements and information for accessory components, seat inserts and postural support devices. Wheelchair manufacturers such as Sunrise Medical Inc. have designed units that meet the draft standard. School districts and contractors should work with physical and occupational therapists to inform students and parents that these wheelchairs will be available. School bus operators have little control over the selection and quality of wheelchairs used by students, but they still need to ensure that mobility devices are in safe working condition. Assuming that your special-needs bus is properly spec'd (see "Tips on Proper Spec'ing of Special-Needs Buses," December 1998), the focus turns to other key pieces of equipment:
Fire blankets: This versatile item can be used in many situations. For example, if there's a fire in the dashboard and the emergency exits are impassable, the blanket can be thrown over the blaze to allow evacuation through the service door. The blanket also can be draped over the sharp edges of metal and glass if evacuation is necessary through a broken-out window.
Seat-belt cutters: This a fairly common item on special-needs school buses. For a seat-belt cutter to be useful, however, it needs to be properly situated. If there's an accident and the driver is unable to free himself from his seat belt, the cutter must be within arm's reach. Additionally, it's critical that the driver and monitor know how to use it properly. That sounds like a no-brainer, but you might be surprised at the number of drivers who've never had any instruction in using the seat-belt cutter. Using a seat-belt cutter is not as easy as it seems. It should be angled at 45 degrees for maximum efficiency, and the seat belt needs to have some tension. If the belt is hanging loosely, it's better to release the clasp. If you don't have spare seat belt material at your disposal, you might be able to obtain some from vehicles at auto wrecking yards.
Bodily fluid clean-up kit: Again, hands-on training is key. For example, if you haven't taught your drivers how to remove the gloves without contaminating their hands, then they probably don't know how to do it. Also, you should make sure non-latex gloves are available in case the driver, aide or passengers are allergic to latex. This is a serious allergy; a severe case can be fatal.
3. Precise Communication
Transportation directors need to know how, when and to whom to communicate information. Many times, the key consideration is: Who needs to know and how much they need to know. For example, if a special-needs student has exhibited a behavior problem that is disrupting the school bus ride, the transportation director needs to decide how to disseminate that information. Sometimes there's a graduated system of communication depending on level of involvement. Other times, all of the players need to know all relevant information to make intelligent decisions about serving the needs of the student. Transportation directors should take an active role in gathering and disseminating relevant information. Rather than passively waiting for information to travel to their office, transportation officials should create opportunities by "percolating and perforating." Percolating involves circulating information, while perforating involves receiving information. Sometimes you have to "poke holes" in barriers to allow information to reach you, especially if you work in a department in which only bad news travels. Outside the transportation department, the way to support information-sharing opportunities is to get involved with building supervisors, physical and occupational therapists and the district's special-education department. That can include requesting to attend committee meetings and strategy sessions. In this way, a transportation director can learn how his department fits in with the rest of the school community, and vice versa.
Repeat instructions often
Maintaining strong communication lines between drivers, monitors and their special-needs passengers is essential, particularly in training youngsters to react properly in a variety of situations, including emergencies. Many special-education students may have difficulty when their routine is unexpectedly interrupted. Frequency of instruction is critical. For example, evacuation training drills are held three times a year in New York, but is that often enough to ensure that the children will remember what to do during an actual evacuation? You might want to make it part of a driver's weekly routine to coach her students on emergency evacuation procedures. That coaching can include showing the ambulatory students how to open the window or the emergency door. With the less able-bodied children, a driver can talk them through the process. For example, the driver might say, "If this were a real emergency, Johnny, I would take you out of your wheelchair and carry you through the rear emergency exit." This helps them to get accustomed to the driver's words and tone of voice, as well as her gestures and body language. If the driver regularly spends time communicating the process, the students will be more likely to respond appropriately in an emergency.
4. Pertinent Information
It's difficult, if not impossible, to do your job unless you have all of the information that you need to know. That sounds like an obvious truism, but special-education drivers often operate without key information, such as the disabilities of students on their bus. To close this gap, the transportation supervisor should strive to become part of the Individualized Education Program (IEP) meeting. Information gathered at this meeting can help transportation staff understand the challenges of the child's specific needs on the school bus. The transportation supervisor should exchange information, not just gather it. For example, the student's teacher can be a great resource, but only if the transportation director shares enough information about how different the school bus environment is from the classroom. In other words, the two worlds have to come together to meet the child's needs in both environments. The struggle to fully inform the driver of a child's disability can be challenging in light of confidentiality entitlements. It's up to the transportation supervisor to heighten awareness about the driver's "need to know" about a student's disability. In addition, the driver should be knowledgeable about expected behaviors. For example, if a student has a seizure disorder, the driver needs specific information about what behaviors accompany one of his seizures so she can react quickly. The driver also needs to know how the student's seizures differ from another student's. In one case, emergency medical intervention may be needed immediately; in another, the situation may be much less severe and may not require outside assistance. Of course, once the driver has information about a child's disability, she needs to be reminded that it's confidential. It should not be talked about over coffee in the driver's lounge or at the local laundromat. It also helps if the drivers know something about the home life of the students. Even a thumbnail sketch can be helpful. For example, if a student's home environment is not stable and supportive, the stress could cause the child to act out on the school bus. Without that background information, the driver might write a referral. However, the right outcome might be that Johnny see a counselor.
5. Program Monitoring
A successful monitoring program starts with the drivers and assistants. If a transportation director does not meet regularly with them and listen closely to their concerns, then feedback at all other levels will not have any foundation. Regular conversations with drivers and monitors can help to alert a transportation director to problems in training, equipment and communication. Drivers and monitors will also let him know if they feel they have the necessary options they need to fulfill their jobs. Also, it never hurts for the transportation director to solicit parents for feedback, asking them about service levels and any other issues that need to be addressed. It's a good idea to invite parents to call about their concerns (and to ensure that the department's phone system can handle any additional traffic). This is an example of perforation. The letter punches a hole that allows the parent to convey information. And that feedback can only help to improve the program. Transportation directors, drivers and monitors should also consider attending open houses. This is another opportunity to share information with parents.
This is a bonus, the sixth "P." The best special-needs operations display an indefinable magic, with the sum of the parts being greater than the whole. To reach that level, however, requires putting together all of the pieces with a combined effort and team spirit. The transportation director, the drivers, the monitors, the parents, the mechanics, the schools - all parts of the whole have to be working together to satisfy the transportation needs of students with disabilities.
Kathy Furneaux is a Program Associate at the Pupil Transportation Safety Institute