Twenty-one teams gather in the parking lot of Metro Tech Vocational Institute in Phoenix on a chilly March morning during the National Conference on Transporting Students with Disabilities (for conference coverage, see “Creating a Safe Transportation Team” in this issue). Participants are divided into two groups, under the guidance of team leaders Gabriel Cachora Sr., transportation director for Indian Oasis-Baboquivari Unified School District No. 40 in Sells, Ariz., and Virginia Torres, safety coordinator for The Trans Group in Long Island, N.Y. The team leaders act as parent-figures, guiding the competitors, answering questions and, above all, encouraging them. “I’m the cheerleader,” says Torres, “and this is the Super Bowl of roadeos.” Torres has been a team leader at her state’s competition for the past two years, but this is her first time leading at the national level. “It [the roadeo] is very organized, very exciting, very positive. There’s a lot of learning going on; a lot of sharing of ideas,” she says. By the end of the day, Torres will be proud to announce that four of this year’s five winning teams came from the group she led.
Anxiety runs high
The two groups separate and attack the events, one starting on pre-trip inspections and the other beginning with loading and securement. Driver Michelle (Micky) Schatz and attendant Kristie Perez of Gilbert (Ariz.) Unified School District have some trouble with the securement exercise, but remain optimistic. “We did good on loading. We had a trying time with the securement, but we’re okay,” says Perez. Schatz and Perez are not alone in experiencing difficulties during the securement event. The securement system used in the competition is not the same one they practiced on the night before. This unexpected change in equipment causes a stir. “They [participants] were panicked about the time,” attests Maritza Valentin, product specialist for Sure-Lok in Branchburg, N.J., and one of the judges of the event. Despite nervousness, the teams performed admirably, says Sure-Lok Sales Director Keith Coffin, also judging the event. “Last year versus this year, I’ve seen extreme improvement -- in sensitivity, dedication and just the mathematics of the whole thing,” he says. One team in particular impressed him with its improvement. Last year, the partners struggled through the roadeo. This year, they earned 100 percent on securement and fourth place overall in the roadeo. Upon receiving Coffin’s praises, the teammates proclaim, “We’ve been practicing for this all year!”
Competition heats up
In the afternoon, the teams gear up for the emergency evacuation and behind-the-wheel portions Ñ two of the most challenging events. “The emergency evacuation is definitely the hardest, because you can’t really prepare for it. You don’t know what the scenario will be,” says Beth Green, driver for Tatum (Texas) Independent School District. As each team boards the bus, a judge reads the following scenario: You are broadsided on the driver’s side of the bus at an intersection. The bus spins and rolls off the road, but its back end is still in the intersection. You’re at the bottom of a hill, where cars will have limited visibility before encountering the bus. The driver of the car appears badly injured. None of the bus’ passengers appears injured. The bus is in working order, including the lift. It’s 10 degrees outside and snowy. A neighbor who you don’t know comes to the bus and offers assistance. You have four children on board. One is in a car seat. Two are seated on bus seats and one is in a wheelchair. The judge finishes reading the scenario and presses the button on the stopwatch in her hand. “Go!” she says, and driver and attendant rush into action. With no time to plan in advance and only two minutes to execute the entire procedure, each team approaches the evacuation in a different way. Some use the lift to lower the student in the wheelchair. Some remove him from the chair and carry him out the front or back doors. Some enlist the help of the neighbor in evacuating the students. A couple of teams even decide not to evacuate at all, but to put out the orange triangles and wait for help instead. The mock evacuation so closely resembles a real situation that many participants say it is truly nerve-racking.
Of all events, the driving portion of the roadeo most closely replicates the complexities of the participants’ daily jobs. Driver Theresa Cole and attendant Deena-Ann Chenault of The Trans Group in Long Island, N.Y., come equipped with a bag of tricks customized for the two passengers they will be transporting. One student (played by judge Brenda Starkey-Fernandez, administrator for transportation at Brownville Independent School District in Texas) has autism and a tendency to repeat words, rock back and forth, bite, bang her head and get up and run. The other student (also a judge) has behavior management problems and an affinity for taunting her fellow passenger. Chenault sits beside the students in their assigned seats, where she can manage their behavior. When Starkey-Fernandez attempts to bite herself or to get up, Chenault is ready with an instructive word, a gentle touch or a distraction tool, such as a book or game. She even brings along a pillow to protect Starkey-Fernandez when she resorts to banging her head on the window. While maneuvering the bus through barrels and over railroad tracks, Cole practices repeating the bus rules with the kids. At the end of the route, driver and attendant present “good rider” certificates to the students. Starkey-Fernandez, before dropping her student role, says, “Man, that was no fun! I couldn’t do anything. No one sat on me like you did!” Starkey-Fernandez says she thinks the key to the team’s success was in the fact that Chenault did not get off the bus to fetch the children at their stop. By staying inside the bus, she established her authority and gained control of the space. Starkey-Fernandez also notes that the pair came well prepared to meet the needs of the students they would be transporting. “I scored them one of the highest of the day,” she says.
1st place -- Ed Lipsey and Anne England, Orange School District, Orlando, Fla.
2nd place -- Barbara Class and Alexandria Boniface, Baltimore County Public Schools
3rd place -- Lisa Huffman and Joan Whilehurs, Onslow (N.C.) County Schools
4th place -- Lawrence Curtis and Jaqueline Campbell, Gallaudet University, Washington, D.C.
5th place -- Helen Beers and Julie Marx, Township High School District 211, Palatine, Ill.