Occupant Safety Debate Heats Up at 2002 NAPT Show

SBF's staff editors — Steve Hirano, Sandra Matke and Joey Campbell
Posted on December 1, 2002

Although the National Association for Pupil Transportation’s (NAPT) 28th Annual Conference and Trade Show convened once again with a focus on several important topics, the tricky subject of occupant protection took prominence among the issues. With the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) still not settled on a solution to the seat belt debate, workshops on passenger crash protection polarized conferees onto both sides of the issue.

Still, the tone of the show, held Nov. 3-7 in Greensboro, N.C., was spirited and educational. Nowhere was this better evidenced than in the opening sessions, which featured amusing presentations by former game show host Bob Eubanks and CNN news anchor Robert Losure.

During the five-day event, more than 2,400 delegates and vendors occupied themselves with nearly 40 workshops, numerous product and technology exhibits, a rousing awards ceremony and a tour of Thomas Built Buses’ manufacturing facility in nearby High Point, N.C. The presentations given by school transportation authorities covered issues ranging from conflict management to wheelchair safety to state school bus inspections.

Seat belt issue still thorny
Occupant protection in school buses sparked heated debate during the conference. At a workshop on NHTSA’s research report on school bus crash protection, members of the audience aired their skepticism. One woman questioned the ability of drivers to cut loose students who are trapped in their lap/shoulder belts during an emergency. Another woman simply asked: “Where’s the money for this?”

The workshop was conducted by Charlie Gauthier, executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services (NASDPTS), and Charlie Hott, a safety standards engineer with NHTSA.

Gauthier argued that the public strongly supports the addition of lap/shoulder belt systems in school buses. “You can’t win this, folks,” he said. “Put some clear glasses on and look at the information.” Liability concerns need to be considered. If a child is killed on a school bus without a lap/shoulder belt system, the risk to the transportation provider is high. “I would suggest you talk to your risk manager about that,” he said.

Gauthier concurred, however, that funding is a critical issue. “We need more money, and the only source that I know of is the federal government.” The transit industry receives billions of dollars in federal funding each year. “We transport more kids each year [than the transit industry], but they’re fully funded with our tax dollars,” he said.

Educating the registrants
Many of the workshops at NAPT concentrated on demystifying potentially confusing policies or hectic scenarios. Examples include sessions on the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards and new CDL requirements as well as workshops on how to avoid liability when disciplining staff and managing student behavior.

In one workshop — “Disaster preparedness and emergency planning: Are you ready?” — Denny Coughlin, fleet manager for Minneapolis Public Schools, outlined a new school bus emergency plan developed by the state of Minnesota. “Sept. 11 has brought about deeper thought on school bus emergencies,” said Coughlin. His presentation recommended other school transportation associations to look into developing similar guidelines. Here are some of the ground rules discussed by Coughlin for developing a plan:

  • It’s OK to reinvent the wheel instead of simply copying existing information.
  • Other emergency plans should be used for reference only.
  • The plan should be composed and written originally by an association’s members and catered to its own specific needs.
  • Information should be easy to understand, in simplest language.

    Currently, the Minnesota Association for Pupil Transportation is taking comments on the plan, which is designed to be an evolving document with consistent revisions. To download a copy or provide feedback on the Minnesota plan, visit and click on “Drivers.”

    N.Y. history lesson
    The school bus-rail tragedy at Congers, N.Y., occurred more than 30 years ago, but remains a strong reminder that daily vigilance is necessary to avoid another such tragedy. “We must leave no stone unturned,” Lenny Bernstein, transportation director at North Rockland Central School District in New York, told attendees of his workshop.

    The site of the accident is within Bernstein’s school district, allowing him to take new drivers to the scene of the horrific crash, which resulted in the deaths of five children and severe injuries to several others. “We hold our rail safety training right there at the scene,” he said. “It’s like going to a monument.”

    Bernstein said the driver in the accident failed to stop at the rail crossing and was convicted of manslaughter. “What did we learn from this tragedy?” he asked.

  • Accidents are preventable.
  • Training is needed.
  • Construction standards were not high enough.
  • Rail crossings should be designed to maximize safety.
  • Medical response training needs to be improved.

    Despite the publicity that surrounds these bus tragedies, crashes at rail crossings continue. “They’re still happening even though we attempt to learn from history,” Bernstein said.

    School choice provisions
    Mary Conk Kusler, a legislative specialist for the American Association of School Administrators, and Robin Leeds, executive director of the Connecticut School Transportation Association, led a workshop titled “What is the No Child Left Behind Act?” Their presentation discussed ways in which this controversial legislation applies to student transportation with its school choice options for students at public, magnet and charter schools, as well as homeless students.

    Kusler and Leeds explained how the act will also provide school choice options to a student who is “persistently dangerous” or to a student who has been the victim of a violent offense. This option has no mandatory transportation requirements, they said.

    The workshop placed a strong emphasis on how funding is procured. Titles I, III, V and X of the legislation all stipulate some allowable government funding for transportation. Title V, Part B, for instance, provides federal grant money for public school choice, some of which goes toward transportation. In fact, 10 school districts, two state agencies and one charter school already have received Title V grant money. But according to Kusler, funding for No Child Left Behind remains a mystery to transportation administrators. “Most people in transportation don’t even know about this, including some people who work for the agencies that received the grants,” she said.

    Kusler and Leeds provided a list of resources to consult that provide a more in-depth look at the act. For a list of these resources, or for other information about No Child Left Behind, contact Kusler at [email protected] or Leeds at [email protected].

    IEP team mentality
    “Be a partner, not just a participant,” a session on IEP team decision making, was conducted by Linda Bluth, chief of the community and interagency services branch of special-education services at the Maryland Department of Education, Tim Flood, executive vice president of the Trans Group in Chestnut Ridge, N.Y., and Alexandra Robinson, transportation director for San Diego City Schools.

    It’s not necessary to attend all IEP meetings, but if you think transportation will be an issue in the meeting, you should attend, said Robinson. Don’t be deterred if you are not invited to IEP meetings. “You can’t wait for an engraved invitation,” she said. Instead, simply call the school and ask how many members of the transportation staff you should send. At the meeting, introduce yourself and express interest in maintaining safety for that student.

    Partnering with IEP team members, however, does not mean doing anything and everything to please a parent. For example, if a wheelchair or safety vest is purchased for a child for use on the bus, that equipment does not have to be sent home with the child for use outside of the bus. Though it may be easier to send a child home wearing the safety vest he or she wore on the bus, Robinson noted that it puts responsibility on the transporter to ensure parents use the vest properly. “If the equipment is purchased with district funds for use on the school bus, then that equipment stays on the school bus,” said Robinson. This policy has been written into the San Diego transportation regulations and Robinson advised attendees to make their own written policies for use of district-purchased equipment.

    Disciplining employees
    Peggy Burns, staff counsel for Adams 12 Five-Star Schools in Thornton, Colo., advised attendees on how to avoid liability when evaluating, disciplining or terminating transportation staff. She recommended meeting with the employee first and preparing documentation afterward. “If you go in appearing that your mind is made up, there’s a real question about the likelihood of open dialogue,” said Burns. Avoid using words of judgement like “unacceptable” or “poor performance.” Instead, have information regarding the employee’s attendance, performance or what it is that concerns you. “Don’t go into a meeting without notes,” stressed Burns.

    After the meeting, write a letter documenting what transpired. Some operators may require the employee to sign a copy of the letter documenting the meeting. Others may not. Burns says to follow whatever your operation’s policy dictates.

    When writing letters or memos to employees, be sure to use a professional tone and correct spelling and grammar. Sometimes documents are subpoenaed for use in a trial — a situation in which you’ll want to put your best foot forward. Also, avoid “cc’ing” people on electronic memos regarding discipline issues. Spreading information of an employee’s record can be viewed as defamation of character, exposing you to risk of liability.

    If you are a new director of a school bus operation, Burns recommends you evaluate previous procedures before disciplining an employee. Ask yourself, “What was the discipline levied to other similarly situated employees?” If you levy a heavier penalty on one employee for the same act that earned another employee a lighter penalty, you’re opening yourself up to a potential discrimination suit. On the other hand, if your predecessor did not enforce rules that you want to begin enforcing, Burns recommends sending out a memo to announce that enforcement is changing with new management.

    Best business practices
    At Miami-Dade County Public Schools, changes throughout the transportation department are projected to save the district more than $13 million. Transporting 72,000 students on 1,700 school buses, Miami-Dade County has the largest district-owned fleet in the United States. Rick Rothberg, coordinator of operations and training for Miami-Dade County, discussed with attendees some of the district’s cost-cutting and service-boosting measures. Here is some of his advice:

  • Evaluate the benefits of pay-to-ride services for students within two miles of the school to reduce motorist traffic.
  • Conduct a driver survey to get feedback on job satisfaction and challenges.
  • Cross-train employees to perform more than one duty, rather than having a separate worker for every task.
  • Invest in a fueling system that enables drivers to refuel their own buses efficiently, eliminating the need for a fueling attendant.
  • Don’t retrofit old buses with air conditioning (eliminating retrofits saved Miami-Dade County $1.8 million).
  • Move to compatible computer systems — that can communicate with each other — for all facets of transportation management (maintenance, routing, scheduling, etc.).
  • Implement an online field trip scheduling system that enables you to input your own field trip information on the Web.
  • Centralize the routing process, rather than dividing it among transportation centers.
  • Create a parent/guardian information booklet in English, Spanish or any other necessary language.
  • Have drivers conduct half-hour school bus safety education programs, including segments on “stranger danger” and sexual harassment on the school bus.

    School bus sightseeing
    About 250 delegates were offered the opportunity to tour Thomas Built Buses’ existing school bus manufacturing facilities and the construction site of the company’s new plant. Just a short distance from Greensboro, Thomas’ corporate headquarters and facilities in High Point, N.C., occupy a total area of about 850,000 square feet. This includes a body manufacturing plant with an adjacent chassis facility.

    The tour of these factories included a first-hand observation of the entire assembly-line process and a look at the 90-acre construction site of the soon-to-be-built plant, which is located next to Thomas’ pre-delivery and storage areas. The $39.7 million plant, scheduled to be operational by the third quarter of 2003, will feature the following:

  • 275,000 square feet of production space.
  • A three-fourth mile assembly line with 75 workstations.
  • Capability to produce 22 buses per shift.
  • An isolated paint shop with robotic paint application.
  • Space to expand to more than 313,000 square feet.
  • 290,000 square yards of re-paved asphalt bus parking area.

    New products launched
    The two-day trade show attracted more than 140 exhibitors, many of whom launched new products.

    One of the most highly anticipated offerings came from Blue Bird Corp., which unveiled a conventional school bus built on its own chassis. Previously, Blue Bird’s conventional bus was offered only on a GM or International chassis.

    Blue Bird’s new conventional bus has a steeply sloped hood that improves visibility. Some attendees remarked that they couldn’t see the hood from the driver’s seat. The bus also boasts a double, full-view outward-opening entrance door and a 13.5-by-7.5-inch safety view panel with a Fresnel lens forward of the service door.

    Standard equipment includes a Caterpillar 3126E engine rated at 210 to 230 horsepower. Allison 2000 series and MD 3060 transmissions are also standard, as is a 100-gallon fuel tank. Passenger capacity ranges from 48 to 78 depending on the wheelbase selection (189 to 273 inches).

    Another new product launched in Greensboro was the Guide XL manufactured by Mid Bus Inc. in Bluffton, Ohio. The bus is built on GM’s new C5500 chassis and features a seating capacity up to 41 passengers. The chassis is available with an 8.1-liter gasoline engine (225 horsepower) or a 6.6-liter Duramax diesel engine (210 horsepower).

    Meanwhile, Collins Bus Corp. featured a redesigned Bantam series product line. The new series offers one-seam roof construction, new rear and entrance door designs, single-piece wrap-around rub rails and a new bumper design.

    NAPT Award Winners

    Blue Bird Heroism Award
    Sandra Plotar (driver) and Lynn Huskey (attendant), South Carolina School for the Deaf and Blind

    IC Corp. Driver Training/Safety Award
    California Department of education — Office of School Transportation, Bob Austin, Anna Borges, Lee Craw, Lisa Middlekauff, Dano Rybar, Matt Sanchez, Dewrell Wesley

    Harford County (Md.) Public Schools — Diana Ormrod, Katherine Mayor, Joyce Levee, Trish Cannaday

    International Marketing Inc. School Bus Driver Excellence Award
    Paul Manlove and Grant Schmaus, Prk Rapids Schools, Park Rapids, Minn

    NAPT Distinguidhed Service Award
    Ed Donn

    School Bus Fleet Administrator of the Year Award
    Robert Pape, transportation director, Lawrence Public Schools, Lawrence, N.Y.

    Sure-Lok Special Needs Transportation Award
    Dr. Ray Turner, special education transportation coordinator, Northside Independent School District, San Antonio

    Thomas Built Buses Professional Growth Award
    William Tousley, transportation supervisor, Farmington Public Schools, Farmington, Mich.

  • Related Topics: Blue Bird Corp., Collins Bus Corp., IEP, legal issues, NAPT, NHTSA, seat belts, Thomas Built Buses

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