SPARTANBURG, S.C. — On Feb. 8, 2002, at around 7 a.m., a Mercedes sedan struck a school bus carrying 11 children from the South Carolina School for the Deaf and the Blind (SCSDB). According to driver Sandra Plotar and bus attendant Lynn Huskey, both vehicles careened off the road and eventually burst into flames.
Witnesses said the unidentified teen driver of the Mercedes hit a patch of black ice while switching lanes on U.S. 29, near Interstate 85 in Greer, S.C., and entered opposing traffic head-on. The momentum of the impact wedged the car under the bus. Both vehicles left the road and came to rest in a muddy embankment off the highway, where Plotar, Huskey and passersby risked personal harm to evacuate the children.
Although none of the children suffered injuries, the teen driver of the Mercedes was pronounced dead at the scene.
For their bravery, Plotar and Huskey received the 2002 Blue Bird Heroism Award presented at the National Association for Pupil Transportation’s Annual Conference and Trade Show in Greensboro, N.C., last November. The association bestows the award annually to individuals directly or indirectly involved in the school transportation industry who have saved lives in the course of their duties.
“It was a bad situation, but it could’ve been worse,” said Plotar, who suffered torn cartilage in both knees and as a result has become permanently disabled. “Initially, I didn’t even realize I was hurt; my first conscious thought was to get the children off the bus.”
Thanks to regular evacuation drills put on by SCSDB, the children were evacuated from the bus in less than two minutes. Robert Lawter, interim transportation director at SCSDB, spoke enthusiastically about the training.
“Every bus driver and attendant receives annual evacuation training,” Lawter said. “They also participate in two student-oriented evacuation drills. We try to simulate an accident as closely as possible.”
Bus attendant Huskey knows the drills well. And in fact, an instinctive reaction on her part prevented the interior of the school bus from being engulfed in flames. Huskey couldn’t determine if the rear emergency exit was clear and opted to use the wheelchair exit.
“When the rescue guys opened the rear door, flames rushed through the entire bus,” Huskey said.
“That created a wind draft,” Lawter explained. “The fire was in the front and by opening the doors in the back it created a suction that drew the fire through the bus. That’s why Lynn [Huskey] used the side door; it cuts down draft.”
Plotar shuns any accolades surrounding her heroism. “Instincts kick in — you know what you have to do and you just do it,” she said.
SCSDB is a specialized instructional and resource center. It provides services statewide for individuals who are deaf, blind and sensory disabled (children and adults), as well as their families and the professionals who work with them. SCSDB offers programs from preschool, elementary, middle school, high school, sensory multidisabled, vocational and postsecondary educational students, as well as a variety of outreach and support services. SCSDB’s Website address is www.scsdb.k12.sc.us.
— Albert Neal
TORRANCE, Calif. — SCHOOL BUS FLEET recently posed the following question to John Farr, transportation director at Oceanside (Calif.) Unified School District.
A transportation supervisor leaves one school district for a job at another school district. At his new job, morale is horrible. The previous supervisor was terminated because he favored certain employees and was despised by others. How does he deal with this morale problem?
Here is Farr’s answer:
1. Sounds negative, but know well the disciplinary process in this district. You may find that removing one rotten apple in your department will do wonders for morale. Be patient. It may take a while to remove the problem. Document! Document! Document!
2. Keep your supervisor in the loop at all times. He/she can often share a wealth of experience.
3. Determine the extent that your superiors are willing to support you, financially, politically, morally and legally. You need to know that — if you are to recommend disciplinary action or termination of a problem employee — you will receive your administration’s full guidance and support.
4. Develop a good driver handbook. Let all know the rules and enforce them equally and consistently.
5. Consider establishing a route bidding process, using seniority as the basis of selection. Get away from the appearance of arbitrarily assigning work (money).
6. Extra work and field trip assignment procedures need to be clear and accurate. Invite a union rep to oversee the assignment process. Consider purchasing one of the field trip assignment programs. We like T.O.M. from Gecko Microsystems. It will not play favorites.
7. Give new drivers clear instructions. We use Edulog’s software to provide printed routing instructions to each substitute driver. We provide extra training in pupil management, special education, etc. Our student discipline process is world-class. Drivers are empowered to suspend students without a school administrator’s knowledge or approval.
8. Develop a good working relationship with the union or association, if there is one. Meet with the union leadership frequently. Is your district truly committed to having good union relations? Know the contract inside out and follow it faithfully.
9. Make sure the shop is doing a good job. A poorly maintained bus really lowers morale.
10. Develop a fleet replacement program. Consider buses to be expendable — like copying machines. They have a useful life, after which funds need to be budgeted for their replacement.
11. Keep the buses looking sharp. Image translates into attitude.
12. Keep lots of substitute drivers on hand. No one likes to come to a job that is a daily routine of late buses and chaos.
13. Spend time in the yard and driver’s room listening to whatever your troops have to say. If a problem presents itself and you feel a solution is reasonable, get it done. Say, for example, a driver says many driver bus seats are broken. You investigate and find that to be so. Before promising anything, get quotes on replacement seats and see if there is budget for new seats. Involve your boss. If approved, involve all drivers in the decision as to which seat is preferred. Give the person suggesting the improvement credit.
14. Try not to blame your predecessor. His/her shortcomings will have been clear to all. Move past the past.
15. Congratulate yourself on landing an assignment that has only one way to go — up!
MONSEY, N.Y. — The driver of a school bus that dragged a 3-year-old boy to death on Jan. 14 has been cited for not having the proper certification. In addition, it was reported that the bus did not have child safety seats, a violation of state requirements.
The boy was killed after one of his mittens, attached to the other with a plastic cord that ran through his jacket, caught in the bus door. He hit his head on the pavement and was dragged about 100 feet before the mitten string snapped.
The bus driver, 70-year-old Boris Shnitzer, apparently was licensed to drive a school bus but did not have an up-to-date medical certification.
Shnitzer said he didn't know the boy was caught in the door. He was not immediately cited in the accident, which is under investigation.
The bus is owned by Yeshiva Tzion Yosef Pupa Inc., a private school in Rockland County, N.Y. The school’s administrator, Naftuli Lauber, was charged with failing to comply with state school bus driver requirements.
School officials told police that Shnitzer had 32 years of experience as a commercial driver and had driven public school buses in New York for 12 years before he started driving for the private school.
WASHINGTON, D.C. — The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) proposed rulemaking on a new subcategory of school buses called multifunctional school activity buses (MFSAB) is widely supported by the pupil transportation community, although some individuals and groups are urging the federal safety agency to remove the vehicle size limitation.
The proposal, which was published last November, would create a category of small buses (GVWR of 15,000 pounds or less) to be used by Head Starts, childcare centers, coordinated transportation providers and public and private schools for activity trips, but not for traditional home-to-school transportation. The buses would not be equipped with traffic control devices such as stop arms and eight-way warning lights, but would have all the other construction features of a school bus.
The purpose of the proposed rulemaking is to provide the intended users with a safer alternative to 15-passenger vans. These multifunctional buses would be cheaper than school buses because of the absence of warning lamps and stop arms.
Comments received by NHTSA on the proposal have been generally favorable.
“When finalized, [the proposed rulemaking] will provide a new type of motor vehicle that will greatly enhance the safety of the various passengers that will ultimately ride in the vehicle,” said Deborah Lincoln, president of the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services (NASDPTS) and state pupil transportation director in Oregon.
“The MFSAB will solve the dilemma that [Head Start programs and childcare facilities] face when they attempt to upgrade their transportation by purchasing small school buses only to find that state law does not allow them to operate school buses,” said Robin Leeds, regulatory liaison to the National School Transportation Association (NSTA).
One point of contention, however, is the 15,000-pound GVWR limitation. NHTSA’s rationale for proposing the weight restriction is that it would prevent schools “as a means of saving money” from using large MFSABs for home-to-school transportation.
Many of the individuals and groups that submitted comments to NHTSA argued that misuse of large MFSABs is unlikely.
“The State Directors Association [NASDPTS] is not aware of any factual data that supports NHTSA’s concerns over potential misuse,” Lincoln said. “Rather, NHTSA’s concern appears to be based on supposition, and as such, we do not believe it is a convincing reason to deny the benefits of this vehicle to some users.”
Lincoln added that the proposed 15,000-pound GVWR cutoff would eliminate larger buses from the potential federal funding under the Federal Transit Administration. “This would stifle coordinated transportation providers in meeting the needs of its potential customers,” she said.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) also supports the removal of the weight restriction. “NHTSA argues that larger multifunction school activity buses could be misused to pick up and drop off children at home; in fact, this argument also applies to the smaller school buses,” said Carol J. Carmody, acting chair of the NTSB.
The Pupil Transportation Safety Institute took a similar stance: “This possibility of misuse is certainly less of a concern than the current range of non- and semi-conforming vehicles currently used to provide this same transportation.”
In contrast, the NSTA’s Leeds expressed support of the size limitation, noting that the proposal is to provide a safe alternative to 15-passenger vans. “There is neither a safety impetus nor a safety benefit in replacing large school buses with MFSABs,” she said. “Conversely, safety may be compromised if larger MFSABs are available.”
If large MFSABs were used for coordinated transportation for both adult and student passengers, Leeds said she could envision a scenario in which pick-ups were made at curbside bus stops. “While this would not be home-to-school transportation, and therefore would not be prohibited by the regulation, it would nonetheless endanger students by requiring roadside loading without the benefit of the school bus traffic control devices,” she said.
Leeds added that large MFSABs would not require a school bus driver. “The MFSAB driver would need only a passenger endorsement, without the additional training of a school bus driver,” she said.
To read the proposed rulemaking, visit http://www.nhtsa.gov/cars/rules/rulings/buspedsafety/schoolacttivitybus.htm.
To read the official comments on this proposed rulemaking, visit http://dms.dot.gov and click on “Simple Search.” To search by docket number, type in “13704” and press “Search.”
NEW YORK — New York City Public Schools’ largest provider of school bus service, Atlantic Express Transportation Group, is no longer required to provide monitors on its vehicles, according to a report in the New York Post.
A bankruptcy court judge ruled earlier this month that Atlantic Express is not legally responsible for using bus aides. Atlantic Express, the fourth-largest North American contractor in SBF’s 2002 contractor survey, filed for Chapter 11 protection last August shortly after its contracts with the unions representing monitors and drivers expired.
The court ruling contradicts a city law requiring that “escorts” ride on all buses or vans carrying special-needs students. However, Atlantic President Domenic Gatto said in a letter to the New York City Board of Education that he hadn’t been advised on an alternative arrangement to compensate for the loss of monitors.
The city currently subsidizes the cost of bus monitors, but Atlantic and other bus companies have claimed that the funding doesn’t fully cover the costs for the monitors. Gatto said his company contributes $5.4 million of its own to provide escorts on every bus.
Atlantic, which operates more than 800 special-needs buses in New York, agreed to keep monitors on its buses through Jan. 31 to avoid service disruptions. But, after that, the company said it would continue providing the service only if the city pays it an additional $7,200 per monitor — the actual yearly cost to employ them.
Meanwhile, the union representing monitors and bus drivers for Atlantic threatened a strike in December.
PALMERSTON, Ontario — Learning has become somewhat of an extreme sport at the Norwell District Secondary School as a class project had students convert a 1967 Blue Bird Type A school bus into an all-out hot rod. The revamped school bus has a 500 cubic-inch Cadillac engine with a 400-horsepower rating, a .060-inch overboard and a 400-turbo transmission.
“We’ve been using hot rods as a learning vehicle for students to increase their awareness and pique their interest with automotive education,” said Jack Harley, manufacturing technology head at Norwell. Harley, a hot rod enthusiast, is the leader of the project.
The Blue Bird hot rod project is sponsored by Ontario Students Against Impaired Driving (OSAID), Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and Blue Bird Corp. in an effort to educate local youth about the dangers of reckless driving and driving while under the influence of alcohol.
Worked on 100 percent by Norwell students, the Blue Bird hot rod is registered as a passenger van with five tilt-and-swivel captain’s chairs and a custom stereo with drop-down headphones. The project took six years to complete and cost an estimated $28,000 Canadian dollars (approximately $17,952 U.S.).
“Everything is aluminum on the inside and it’s all steel on the outside,” said Harley. The hot rod, which gets about 11 miles to the gallon, currently holds the unofficial world record for the fastest pass down a quarter-mile drag strip. Harley stated that the vehicle’s official speed record was 22 seconds at 59.65 miles per hour.
Norwell District Secondary School owns the hot rod, which was donated by Blue Bird and is insured by the school board. Local companies provided materials for the project in exchange for advertising. MADD contributes the fuel necessary for trips and competitions against other schools with hot rod cars or buses. To eliminate the danger in drag racing, students trade e-mails with their race times as opposed to competing at the same time on the same strip.
For additional information about Norwell District Secondary School’s Blue Bird Hot Rod project, visit them at www.hotrodhighschool.com.
— ALBERT NEAL
WASHINGTON, D.C. — According to the Special Education Expenditure Project (SEEP), as of the 1999-2000 school year, there were 6 million special-needs students enrolled in schools in the 50 states and Washington, D.C. About 1.97 million of these students, or 33 percent, received transportation services provided by their district. Of these students, 840,000 (14 percent) received special-needs transportation services, and 1.1 million of them (19 percent) received regular transportation services.
Conducted by the American Institutes for Research for the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs, the SEEP report used 23 different surveys to collect data at the state, district and school levels. Respondents included state directors of special education, district directors of special education and district directors of transportation services, among others.
Study results, released in November 2002, show that the nation’s school districts spent around $13.1 billion on school transportation services for all K-12 students in public schools. Of this figure, approximately $3.7 billion, or 28 percent, was spent on special-needs transportation. This $3.7 billion also represented about 7 percent of the total spending on special-education services ($50 billion) in U.S. schools, which included costs of learning materials, classroom supplies and salaries for special-education employees.
SEEP also found that the regular transportation expenditure was an estimated $442 per pupil. Meanwhile, the special-needs transportation expenditure per pupil was approximately 10 times that amount at $4,418. Since the release of the last SEEP study in 1985-86, the per-pupil special-needs transportation expenditure (adjusted by the Consumer Price Index) rose from $2,463, an increase of 80 percent. The per-pupil spending on regular transportation inflated from $365, an increase of 20 percent.
During the 1999-2000 school year, about one-fourth of all students with disabilities were transported from home to regular education schools, while 7 percent were transported to special education schools. Another 2 percent were transported from one school to another to receive vocational or other special-needs services.
ALEXANDRIA, Va. — The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 have prompted school bus contractors to bolster their employee training to address security threats, but not to invest in improvements in equipment or facilities, according to a study published by the National School Transportation Association (NSTA), which represents private school bus companies.
The study, which was based on 93 responses to a four-page questionnaire, was conducted in October and November 2002, a little more than a year after the attacks in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C.
The first major finding, according to NSTA, is that contractors “have addressed both formally and informally the needs of employees and the schoolchildren they transport.” The training provided by the contractors addressed three key areas: concerns about heightened security, how to deal with terrorist actions and how to deal with children who may be grieving or otherwise affected by terrorist or violent incidents.
The second finding is contractors have not made significant investments in equipment or facility improvements to heighten security.
For example, contractors have not embraced GPS or non-GPS bus tracking systems in the wake of the attacks. Rather, contractors continue to rely on two-way radios and to a lesser extent, cellular phones, for emergency communication (see chart).
In response to heightened security concerns, four of five respondents (78.5 percent) reported they had participated in some sort of training. Of those, nearly three-quarters reported they had used multiple approaches.
The most frequently used methods were relatively informal, such as circulating magazine or newspaper articles (35.6 percent), informal gatherings or meetings (34.2 percent) and one-on-one meetings with employees (32.9 percent).
Formal training consisted of on-site training (28.8 percent), special meetings without a formal training component (26 percent), training or formal sessions with school officials (26 percent), training or informal training with law enforcement officials (21.9 percent) and formal training conducted off-site (20.5 percent).
Two of three respondents (68.8 percent) reported focusing on training in response to dealing with terrorist actions. This training was often conducted in informal gatherings or small groups (30.1 percent). The second-most common methods were training or formal sessions with school officials (22.2 percent), followed by circulating magazine or newspaper articles (20.6 percent) and one-on-one meetings with employees (20.6 percent).
Nearly half of the respondents (49.5 percent) reported dealing with children who may be affected by terrorist or violent incidents. More than half (54.3 percent) reported using multiple approaches to deal with impacted children. Informal gatherings or meetings were used more than one-third of the time (34.8 percent), while one-on-one meetings with employees were used more than one-fourth (26.1 percent) of the time.
Security at bus stops was another topic covered in the survey. One in five respondents (21.5 percent) noted that parents and caregivers are more often at the stops. Very few respondents noted that law enforcement officers (4.3 percent) or school officials (5.4 percent) were more often at the stops. Meanwhile, four of five respondents (81.7 percent) reported that they saw no change in school security measures affecting transportation.
MANSFIELD, Texas — A local school district has put together an electronic referral system to more efficiently deal with inappropriate bus conduct. The price? “Nothing,” said Charles Stone, transportation director at Mansfield Independent School District. “All we used was access to computers that were already available anyway.”
The program cost a few extra hours of labor, as drivers were given one day of basic computer instruction during the district’s in-service training at the beginning of the school year. Yet, other programs the district looked into ranged in cost from $12,000 to $18,000, Stone said.
The transportation department’s local computer network was used to create a simple system in which drivers can access ready-made forms in Microsoft Word. They can also access the forms through their personal e-mail accounts, Stone said.
The benefit of having an electronic system is that e-mail referrals from the drivers immediately notify school principals of misconduct, eliminating the delays caused by routing of hard-copy reports. According to Stone, the program has shortened the district’s handling of complaints from several days to as fast as five minutes.
The electronic referrals also have the advantage of being easy to read. Drivers with handwriting that looks more like “chicken scratch,” Stone said, can now relate their problems without fear of misinterpretation. The key, he added, is that disciplinary action can be handed down with minimal delay, which helps drivers maintain control of their passengers and improves the overall safety of everyone on the bus.
— Rebecca Christiansen
DURHAM, N.C. — A stray bullet crashed through the back window of a school bus on Dec. 2, slightly injuring the driver and two elementary school students. According to police, the shot was part of crossfire among three men in nearby vehicles, and the bus was not an intended target.
“From what we can tell so far, it was sort of like a running gun battle,” said Lt. Norman Blake of the Durham Police Department. “The individuals were in vehicles firing at each other. In the process, a shot went through the bus and grazed the driver, and some kids were injured by flying glass.”
The bus driver, Shanita Morgan, told the local newspaper that the bullet skimmed her head and ended up on the floor by her feet. She and the two students were treated at a local hospital.
Three suspects in the shooting have been arrested, each on multiple counts of discharging a firearm into an occupied vehicle and assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill. Kevin Johnson, 19, Mike Brown, 21, and Keiron Williams, 22, were imprisoned under $1 million secured bonds. Blake said that whoever is found to have fired the shot into the bus will probably face additional charges.
Investigators believe the shooting was not gang-related, even though Brown is known to be a gang member. Brown is on probation from a 2001 conviction in which he was connected to a shooting at a Durham city transit bus, though the judge in the case found that he did not actually fire a shot. A 16-year-old girl was injured in that incident.
In the December shooting, the Durham Public Schools bus was passing by a housing complex near an elementary school when the bullet struck it. School officials said they would consider additional safety measures. However, Transportation Director Henry Kirby said that changing the bus route would not be among options for increasing protection of the students.
“We have to go through that neighborhood,” he said. “If we stopped at either end of the housing development, it would be quite a distance for those smaller children to walk, which would put them more in the line of fire.”
Kirby said that parents have responded well to the incident. “The people I talked to were thankful that no one was seriously injured,” he said. “I think they realize that there wasn’t anything we could have done to prevent it. You can’t armor a school bus.”
MADISON, Wis. — Several state legislative proposals are being developed in Wisconsin that would expand criminal background checks of school bus drivers and make it easier for parents to get information about their children’s drivers. According to the Associated Press, legislators are working on a measure that would require school bus drivers to display in their vehicles copies of their CDLs and a photo ID card.
Christine Sinicki, a former Milwaukee School District board member and current state representative, said she is drafting legislation that would eliminate criminal background checks for potential school bus drivers that only check the past five years.
The legislation comes on the heels of a trial in Marathon County, Wis., involving a former Laidlaw school bus driver. The driver has been charged with six counts of first-degree sexual assault of a child under 13 years old. The charges against the driver didn’t occur in his capacity as a school bus driver, and deeper background checks wouldn’t have turned up anything different.
Meanwhile, state legislators are working on another proposal that would make public the names of school bus drivers and other public employees who work with children, the elderly and persons with disabilities.
Robert Christian, executive director of the Wisconsin School Bus Association (WSBA), said he is now surveying WSBA members on their views of the legislative proposals. Christian doesn’t support public display of driver’s licenses because they have addresses of the drivers.
“I wouldn’t be in favor of displaying addresses,” Christian said. “Drivers should have some privacy if they are working for private companies.”
SHERWOOD, Ore. — A Sherwood School District bus driver received the American Heart Association Heartsaver Award Dec. 18, in honor of her use of CPR to save an elderly woman’s life.
On Nov. 1, Leanne Schwarzin had just dropped off her last student when she saw 86-year-old Mabel Adams lying on the sidewalk. Standing next to Adams was her 12-year-old grandson, Jacob Owen. The two had been walking home after a bingo session at the Sherwood Senior Center when Adams collapsed.
Because it was clear the boy did not know first aid, Schwarzin decided to use her formal training. It was the first time she had ever used her CPR knowledge and, according to Schwarzin, she silently prayed while administering treatment. JoAnne Kirkbride, 13-year transportation manager for the district, said she had never experienced such a situation.
“How can I not be proud of Leanne?” she said. “She is a professional, and as such handled the situation in a professional manner. Because of Leanne’s caring nature for the ‘special students’ she transports, she couldn’t turn her back on someone who needed her help.”
The award was a surprise for Schwarzin, who started crying when they announced it at a school district ceremony.
“Adams just looked at me and said, ‘I don’t know what to say; you saved my life. Thank you,’” says Schwarzin. “I gave her a hug and a kiss on the cheek and said, ‘It’s OK, you don’t need to say anything. You are here, and that is all that matters.’” For Schwarzin, being in the right place at the right time is what really makes her happy.
ORLANDO, Fla. — A quick-thinking high school student at Orange County Public Schools says he’s no hero, but his school bus driver disagrees.
Travis Cossart, a sophomore at Timber Creek High School, rushed to Fred Tindall’s aid after the 62-year-old bus driver passed out while trying to exit the vehicle, which he had pulled to the side of the road after feeling nauseated and dizzy.
Travis, who was one of two students aboard the bus, immediately grabbed the two-way radio and asked the dispatcher to send an ambulance to the location. He then opened the bus’ first-aid kit, removed a bandage and applied it to Tindall’s bleeding forehead.
Travis even helped to load Tindall into the ambulance after paramedics arrived. “I was impressed, but it doesn’t surprise me because that’s the kind of kid Travis is,” Tindall said.
Travis said he knew what to do because he had received training from the Orange County Fire-Rescue Department’s Explorer program. In explanation of his heroics, Travis said, “I like to help people.”
JACKSON, Calif. — A fleet of 30 school buses from the Amador County School District was sidelined indefinitely in mid January, and school transportation officials may face charges after California Highway Patrol (CHP) inspectors filed a report with the district attorney's office citing gross negligence with repairs and substandard facility operations.
CHP officer Craig Harmon, who supervises school bus inspections, reported that Transportation Director Larry Critchfield and Transportation Supervisor Doug Polk have been removed and that the district may face charges for negligence in fleet maintenance.
CHP inspectors have been investigating the fleet since 1998 and to date have filed a record 822 violations. Violations included bad brakes and tires, exhaust leaks and defective odometers. School officials pointed to budget deficits in response to the fleet’s poor maintenance record and its inability to reverse the situation.
A trio of mechanics maintained the fleet of 30 buses, but they also serviced other district vehicles and equipment, including backhoes and lawnmowers.
“One of the recommendations we made was that that stuff go somewhere else and these guys just pay attention to the buses,” said Harmon. “They had all the school equipment within the county — way too much for them to do.”
The school district has since purchased eight new buses and taken steps to improve its maintenance program.
— Albert Neal