Management

Enduring the Aftermath of a School Bus Tragedy

Joey Campbell, Assistant Editor
Posted on March 1, 2010

Although school buses are undeniably the safest way for students to travel, accidents on the road do happen. Unfortunately, accidents sometimes have tragic results, leaving behind a wake of pain and distress in the schools and surrounding community. Transportation departments are usually forced to bear much of the burden, and restoring order becomes the operator's unenviable responsibility. According to Gordy Hoglund, owner of Hoglund Transportation in Monticello, Minn., the situation can quickly get out of control after a tragedy. "There is so much chaos. It's an awful deal," he says.

On April 10, 1997, a speeding gravel truck ran a stop sign and plowed into a Hoglund school bus carrying students from a Monticello-area elementary school. The ensuing disaster left four dead, including three students onboard the bus, and many more hospitalized with serious injuries. It was Minnesota's worst school bus accident in decades. To handle the formidable tasks that arose after this catastrophe, it took strong faith and dedication. "Two days after the accident happened, I didn't want this job anymore," says Hoglund. "That is why you must keep your confidence up." He says that believing in yourself and knowing that you are doing the right thing will help you get through a tragedy. However, confidence alone won't solve every problem. Being prepared for the worst is equally important. Knowing what to expect and where to devote energy and resources will allow you to operate during the most high-pressure situations. There is no way to prevent an accidental tragedy, but being ready to react when one occurs is the next best thing.

Put together a plan
Every school bus operation should have an emergency plan in place well before an accident actually happens. The plan should take into consideration every potentially urgent scenario that might arise. Many states, in fact, have a uniform emergency procedure that every school district is required to follow. The Murray County School District in Chatsworth, Ga., needed such a plan on March 28, 2000, after a school bus-train collision on the Tennessee-Georgia border claimed the lives of three children. Having a system for allocating labor and catering to those in need was essential in the days following the crash.

Dean Donehoo, administrative services director for Murray County Schools, says the district uses an emergency management plan that defines the duties of transportation staff. "Some people are assigned media relations, some are told to go to the scene and investigate and some are assigned to deal with the concerns of the schools," he says. Still, Donehoo says that his district's plan lacked provisions for working with surrounding school systems. "You need to have ways for different school systems to help each other in emergencies," he says. "It gives you more resources to deal with a problem. Especially in a small school system like ours."

Practice the plan
Having a plan is crucial to a school bus operation after an accident. But a plan is useless if the employees expected to abide by it do not have confidence in it. "I think everyone is familiar with emergency plans, but I would tell directors to constantly review the plans and look for weaknesses in them," says Transportation Director David Clagg of Christian County Schools in Herndon, Ky.

Clagg was head of the district's transportation department in November 2000 when a 5-year-old boy was killed in a school bus accident. The event convinced him that emergency procedures must be consistently re-analyzed. Additionally, he says, routine practice helps greatly. "I felt good about being able to deal with a media investigation one on one," Clagg says. "But it's different when you have 20 people at once trying to put words in your mouth, and you are not at liberty to release certain information that the government is in charge of." To counter this kind of problem, everyone from management down to drivers and students should have an understanding of what a real crisis situation is like. Effective preparation techniques include roleplaying and repetitive drilling in safety exercises. Frequently, the fire department, police and other emergency organizations will demonstrate bus evacuation and rescue drills.

Many school districts provide students with training about the danger zones around a bus. By knowing and practicing the right course of action, you will be better equipped to make a smart decision when the time comes. "When it comes down to the wire, and your brain is running in a hundred different directions, it is nice to be able to count on something that has already been thought out in a cool sense," says Greg Kautza, director of administrative services for the Merrill (Wis.) School District. Kautza helped resolve the problems facing his school district following the death of a fifth-grade student who was crushed beneath her own school bus in October 1998.

Respond quickly
When a tragic event occurs, it is necessary to take smart and immediate action. To do so, all critical information must be collected as soon as possible. Debbie Spitzer-Lawson, driver instructor for Central Unified School District in Fresno, Calif., says that there are two initial questions you must ask yourself when you find that somethingÕs gone wrong. "The first things you want to know are: Were there students on board and what was the severity of the accident?" The most important details must be obtained quickly so the right people can be informed. If necessary, paramedics, the fire department and other appropriate assistance must be contacted. The quicker all relevant information is gathered, the easier communication becomes between school officials, law enforcement and the public.

Another aspect of a quick and efficient response is securing the accident scene. This involves finding out who is currently at the scene and determining who should and shouldn't be there. It also entails finding and helping anyone who needs assistance. Hoglund says that securing the scene of an accident can be very confusing, and identifying people - especially children - can be difficult. He advises that, for identification purposes, you always take a shoe from any child who is rushed away in an ambulance. "Even if you know who was on the bus, you don't know which way they went. But most parents will recognize their child's shoe," he says. Clagg contends that a speedy response can depend heavily on your original planning. He recommends school transportation officials target hot routes in potentially dangerous areas. If you know the places where an accident is most likely to occur, you will have an easier time getting to the correct site and knowing possible causes of the accident.

Develop a PR strategy
Anytime a school bus accident involves a fatal injury, news of the story will begin spreading almost immediately. The manner in which information about the incident is reported will often aggravate the worries of the victims and their families, while stirring up the concerns of the school system and community. Organizing a method of handling media relations will help shape attitudes and perceptions of your operation's performance. In his report for Dallas Area Rapid Transit, Morgan J. Lyons, a media relations specialist, prescribes four steps for responding to a crisis situation - action, admission, access and analysis.

Action - Give your immediate attention to the problem. Regardless of how difficult it may be, you must face the public.

Admission - Explain what happened and the apparent reasons for it. You can also ease tensions by outlining possible resolutions.

Access - Let everyone see that efforts are being taken to help. The approach you take can be as important as the result.

Analysis - Ask yourself questions about how the plan was executed. The objective is to uncover what measures can be taken to improve your communications plan.

Speed is vital when dealing with the media. Your first move in reaction to a crisis should be to promptly assign a public relations spokesperson. News coverage of the situation will begin to mount very rapidly, so a thoughtful and appropriate statement should be made to set the tone. "We issued our first media releases in time to make the 12 p.m. news that day. We also sent home a letter with each student to give parents as much information as soon as we could," says Donehoo. He adds that contacts were sent to every school in the district, and all the principals were briefed shortly after the crash.

Comfort the grieving
Naturally, the morale of parents, students and others associated with a tragedy will be very low. The community will be immersed in negative emotion. People will harbor different feelings about death, ranging from sadness to fear to confusion. Emotional and physical assistance should be made readily available to those who need it. The most common way to help those in need is through grief counselors. Most hospitals have programs aimed specifically at helping people deal with tragedies. Districts will frequently pool together local social workers and volunteers to help out. Some districts even have family resource centers in the schools.

Addressing the issue of student morale can be complicated. Children tend to deal with tragedies very differently at different ages. It is best to expose students to professional counselors who have been trained to help young people cope with loss. The needs of parents are a little different. Clagg says that they are skeptical of the department after a fatality and are mainly concerned with budgets and training procedures. "We deal with parents by being honest and up front with them and by gathering as much information as possible and sharing it with them," he says. Spitzer-Lawson agrees.

In April of this year, a Central Unified school bus collided with a pickup truck, causing a fire inside the bus that killed the driver. Original reports did not provide an accurate description of what caused the wreck. "We had to reassure parents that accidents like these are freak accidents, and we pulled statistics to show how low fatalities are on school buses," she says. Also, remembrance gatherings, candlelight vigils and dedication of parks and monuments can help communities cope with great losses. The greatest healing factor, however, is time.

Reassure your drivers
Spitzer-Lawson says that sometimes accidents shake the drivers more than anyone else. "They have to drive by the site every day, so they can't avoid it," she explains. "It's a predominant thought out there on the road." Some effective techniques for dealing with driver morale are group discussions, skills testing and roadeos, reinforcement of safety precautions and adding driver aides and monitors on buses. With drivers, you must send the message that their security is important. Overall, paying greater attention to them, including training and evaluations, tells drivers that you support them.

Kautza says that another way to deal with driver emotions is to have them meet with people who understand what they are going through. "We got our driver in touch with another driver who had experienced the same thing in another town," he says. "It was the best thing that could happen for both drivers because they had mutual support and healing." Hoglund takes the same approach to persevering. He feels that people working in the same business can better associate with one another. "Sometimes it takes another person in the school bus field to understand your position and help you get through it," he says. "I called someone else who had a death in one of their school buses. I figured that it helped me, so maybe I could pass it on and help someone else."

Learn from the past
If there is any good in a school bus tragedy, it lies in its capacity to alert people to the need for improvements in a system. A tragedy can teach lessons that will allow better management of an operation in times of adversity. "If you talk to others, you can find things that they learned from a fatality and improve on them in your own system. You don't have to reinvent the wheel," says Clagg. Some of the lessons he's learned include having in-depth passenger information and photos, running criminal background checks on all employees, utilizing safety technology like cameras and, most importantly, having good documentation on every aspect of the transportation operation. "If you don't have good documentation, you may be left with the stigma that you caused a death," he warns.

Donehoo emphasizes the need for people to work together in emergencies. "It was the prime thing I learned out of all this," he says. He maintains that cooperation between schools, investigators, state and local municipalities, social workers, media and others at the scene of a disaster makes the job easier on everyone. In any case, tragedies are tough experiences and mistakes will be made. Policies to prevent future disasters can only be based on experience. Therefore, questioning your decisions and actions can help you find flaws in your operation and procedures that need correcting. Says Kautza, "We debrief after every situation to see how we could have handled it differently or what we could have done better."

A source of relief
Grief counselors provide emotional consolation for those involved in a tragedy. They help communities overcome traumatic events by letting people know they are not defenseless. Deborah Rivlin, a grief counselor for Boston Medical Center's Good Grief program, is experienced in counseling students, parents and faculty after school-related deaths. In late April, she was summoned to help after a bus crash in Canada killed four students. Rivlin says her objective is to bring positives from a tragedy. She helps children develop lifelong strength and coping skills after losing someone, making them better equipped to deal with future losses. To do this, she says, you must first train adults to confront the problem. "Students would rather talk to the people they already know and trust, like parents and teachers," she says. "So I try to give the right tools and skills to the adults."

Rivlin emphasizes the use of one-on-one and small group discussions. She advocates people opening up their homes to those in need. Memorial services are also great healing experiences, she says. After an incident, Rivlin stays around to offer her support for a couple of days. Typically, she spends a lot of time with parents and school staff members, trying to open lines of communication. "The crisis people leave after a few days, but the crisis is not over. So I have to do a good job with the adults because they will still be around after I'm gone," she says.

Related Topics: morale, school bus crash

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