Special Needs Transportation

Wheelchair securement, harassment are key topics

Posted on April 1, 2004
ATLANTA — About 450 special-needs transporters assembled to share innovative practices and forge valuable relationships at the 13th National Conference & Exhibition on Transporting Students with Disabilities & Preschoolers.

The conference, held March 5-10, provided workshops led by industry experts, a trade show focused on special-needs equipment and services and a special-needs team roadeo.

During the meeting, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration finalized an interim rule on the manufacture of safety harnesses, a key concern for school bus operators who transport special-needs students.

The final rule mirrors the interim rule, which would have expired on Sept. 1, 2004, allowing the manufacture of harnesses for school buses.

Two years ago, NHTSA issued an interpretation that safety vests that wrap around the seat could not be manufactured for use on school buses.

In response to a petition from a safety vest manufacturer, NHTSA published an interim rule on Oct. 22, 2002, that permitted the manufacture of the vests, but required that they bear a warning label informing users that the harness must be used only on school bus seats and that the entire seat directly behind the child wearing the seat-mounted harness must be either unoccupied or occupied by restrained passengers.

The workshop series included an enlightening session on wheelchair and occupant securement. Led by Miriam Manary of the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute and Susan Shutrump of the Trumbull County (Ohio) Educational Services Center, the workshop focused on crash tests with properly and improperly secured wheelchairs and occupant dummies.

Manary and Shutrump demonstrated the importance of securing wheelchairs facing forward, as crash-test clips showed dummies in both side-facing and rear-facing positions flailing violently or even flying out of their wheelchairs. Manary added further to the weight of the issue by explaining that the chairs used in both positions were strong, transit models. A forward-facing dummy in a crash at the same speed fared noticeably better.

Further discussion in the session included a widespread problem in wheelchair securement: tight spaces on the special-needs bus. As footage showed, not using each tiedown can lead to poor performance in a crash. However, the panelists acknowledged that anchor points on the far side of a chair are often hard to reach

“Clear floor spaces seem to be getting smaller and smaller, and this can really present some problems,” said Shutrump. She recommended that buses be spec’d not to maximize passenger capacity, but to ensure enough tiedown space.

Peggy Burns, in-house counsel for Adams 12 Five-Star Schools in Thornton, Colo., conducted a workshop that delved into harassment, especially that involving students with disabilities.

Burns provided several examples of disability harassment that had occurred within the past five years. While some involved harassment in the more traditional sense of teasing and name-calling, some were subtler and actually involved decisions on the part of transportation personnel. In one example, a driver subjected a student to inappropriate restraint that was not indicated on the student’s IEP. In another, a transportation director denied a student with a disability from going on a field trip because no bus equipped with a lift was available.

Burns recommended developing a thorough policy that includes a definition of harassment, possible consequences and interventions and a specific grievance process for those affected by harassment. “A big source of litigation is the failure of the district to spell out the grievance process,” said Burns.

Conference events also included a series of “chat rooms,” which were led by one or two facilitators but, as the name implies, focused on comments and questions on a predetermined topic from all in attendance. In a chat room facilitated by Kathy Furneaux of the Pupil Transportation Safety Institute and Maureen Arnitz of the Gananda Central School District in Macedon, N.Y., participants shared tips for organizing state and local special-needs team roadeo events.

The trade show, which drew 35 vendors, saw the unveiling of an innovative feature: “relationship tours.” Tour leaders escorted conferees around the exhibit hall, introducing them to vendors and helping to facilitate discussions.

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