Getting a Fix on Stranded Students

Steve Hirano, Editor
Posted on March 1, 2003

For no apparent reason, a rash of incidents involving children being left on school buses has been reported across the country in the first few months of 2003.

Consider the following media reports:

Jan. 8, 2003 — A special-needs student at Castro Elementary School apparently fell asleep on the bus ride to school Tuesday morning and was found still aboard the bus in the middle of the afternoon.

Jan. 9, 2003 — For the second time in two months, a 4-year-old child was left on a Newport News school bus after the driver neglected to check the seats when the route was done.

Jan. 23, 2003 — An 18-month-old Minneapolis boy was hospitalized after he spent more than three hours in a cold school bus Wednesday night, police said.

Jan. 28, 2003 — For the second time in a week, a child’s been left forgotten on a school bus in the Twin Cities. A 4-year-old girl apparently fell asleep Monday morning and didn’t get off the bus at her Head Start program. She awoke in a St. Paul school bus parking lot.

Jan. 31, 2003 — The state is investigating how an 18-month-old toddler was left strapped into his seat inside a locked minibus for five hours after the driver apparently forgot to drop him off at a childcare center.

Feb. 8, 2003 — A violation of procedure by a Whitesboro Central School District bus driver resulted in a 9-year-old boy being left alone for more than four hours in freezing temperatures on a bus parked outside the district’s Wood Road garage.

Feb. 8, 2003 — A preschooler was left alone on a school bus in Salem-Keizer district’s bus barn for more than 30 minutes after a driver failed to notice that the child did not get off at his school.

Fortunately, none of the children were seriously harmed in the incidents mentioned above. But several close calls have been reported. Because of the unusually severe winter in many parts of the country, some children have been exposed to dangerously cold temperatures.

But the danger is not limited to the weather. Children who are able to find their way off their bus are suddenly exposed to other dangers. Bus parking lots are not the place for small children to wander, nor are nearby neighborhoods.

What's happening?
So why are these incidents occurring? That's anybody’s guess. The extreme winter weather may play a role. Children heavily bundled in warm clothing may be more inclined to fall asleep on the bus. And bus drivers, hastened by the cold weather, may be more inclined to skip the walk-back portion of their post-trip inspections. There's no telling.

Or it may be that the incidence of children stranded on school buses has not increased. With the growth of the Internet's ability to share and categorize information, especially from media sources, it may be that we’re simply learning of more incidents than we previously knew about.

In any case, the industry needs to respond to this flurry of dangerous mishaps by scrutinizing its policies and procedures regarding driver walk-throughs. That includes training measures as well as disciplinary policies.

To get a full perspective on this issue, we interviewed several experts on pupil transportation.

We asked each of them the following questions: "What can be done to prevent this from occurring" and "How should drivers who leave children aboard their buses be dealt with (for a first offense)?"

Here's what they had to say.

Too cold to take chances
Chuck Holden, transportation director at Anoka-Hennepin Schools in Coon Rapids, Minn.
In Minnesota, leaving a sleeping child on a school bus can be a life-threatening situation, with temperatures below zero on many days during the winter. So we take it very seriously. Drivers are not given a second chance; after one incident where they fail to check the bus and the child needs to be recovered from their bus, the driver is terminated — zero tolerance.

The best system I have found to prevent this is the "Empty Bus" placard, which goes in the back window every time the bus is parked. This forces the driver to walk to the back of the bus after the trip. The earlier electronic systems were easy to circumvent (kids could deactivate them for the driver.). Several Minnesota districts are testing the newest systems, and they may be better.

Personally, I think the placard is the best, cheapest system, and it is easy for a manager to drive the bus lot and see which buses have been walked through by observing the placards.

The other thing that happens is peer pressure from other drivers, as they notice who put up the placard and who didn’t and help police their ranks.

Unfortunately, no system is foolproof, and if a young child is scared, he tends to hide under the seat, so unless a driver is very attentive, the child can be missed.

Driver "buy-in" is key
Daryl Jefferson, branch manager of Laidlaw Education Services in Jefferson, Ore.
Prevention must go beyond the instituting of policies and procedures. Punitive actions alone have certainly not proven to be efficacious in making sure no students are left aboard our buses. It is absolutely critical to get drivers and aides to understand the seriousness of leaving a child on a bus and then to completely "buy in" to the importance of making a proper post-trip check.

The obvious first step in this process is proper training. At Laidlaw, all buses are equipped with the Child Check-Mate system. This system requires a driver to move to the rear of the bus and deactivate a warning system by pushing a button mounted on the body. However, it is still possible to pass through the bus without a thorough search under each seat. Therefore, it is necessary to provide training in the correct way of using the system and in properly post-tripping the bus.

Other steps that should be taken are to constantly remind drivers and aides to check for students by using posters or flyers throughout the bus garage and to make sure it is discussed at the monthly safety meeting. Random inspections of buses as they return to the garage could also be an effective reminder.

No room for argument
Cathy Erwin, transportation director at Cave Creek (Ariz.) Unified School District
When training a new bus driver, great importance needs to be placed on the inside post-trip inspection of the bus and the rationale for it. If it is explained up-front to a driver that termination will follow if any child is found left on a bus, there is no room for argument or dispute in the event it should happen. When it comes to kids being left on a bus, there are no second chances.

Also, during bus evacuation drills I would teach the children how to use the horn on the bus to get someone’s attention in case they were ever accidentally locked in. In most cases, if the horn blowing is consistent, someone will eventually come to check it out. Drivers should also explain how to use the two-way radio — including turning it on — and put great emphasis on the emergency exits and how to get out of a bus.

Preventive measures, consequences and knowledge will go a long way in ensuring that this type of situation does not happen.

Don't turn the other cheek
George Horne, Southeast regional office of the Pupil Transportation Safety Institute
I’m sorry it has come to this — adults not fulfilling their responsibilities toward the children placed in their care — but I believe every school district must take a strong stand to prevent and then to punish when children are left on board our nation’s school buses.

First, policies and procedures (with strong consequences) must be in place. Second, observations need to be made by school-based staff, as well as transportation staff, to see that post-trip inspections are conducted. Then, when violations occur, second and third chances should not be an option. Termination and possible prosecution should follow.

For the welfare of our children and the reputation of our professional drivers and attendants, we cannot continue to "turn the other cheek."

Create the right routine
Dennis Essary, transportation supervisor, Beaverton (Ore.) School District
Training is a critical factor in the prevention of this problem. Walking the bus after each route should be part of the regular routine for drivers so it becomes a habit. Just like the procedure followed during the pre-trip inspection, it should be done the same each time, each day.

Numerous signs and electronic devices are available now to ensure the driver walks to the rear of the bus after each route, but the driver is still the most important factor.

Each circumstance should be evaluated on the merits of the incident. A driver who discovers a child asleep on the bus immediately after returning to the lot is different than one who never checks and the student is found wandering the lot hours after the bus has parked.

Keep the pressure on
Joan Corwin, president, Chappaqua (N.Y.) Transportation
Educate. Educate. Educate. Remind drivers of their responsibility. Spot check drivers as they leave their vehicles after a run. I try to put all articles pertaining to children being left on buses next to the time clock as a constant reminder. I also have "child finder" buzzers in all of my large buses and kindergarten vans. A driver has to leave the driver’s seat and walk to the rear of the vehicle in order to disable the buzzers. I also spot check drivers on the video cameras.

Our company policy states that any driver who leaves a child unattended on a bus will be immediately terminated. There is no second chance.

Related Topics: post-trip child check

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