Special Needs Transportation

Experts Weigh In on Special-Needs Issues

Posted on February 1, 2008
Students who have special needs make up a relatively small segment of the pupil transportation population, but the complexities involved in getting them to and from school safely explain the increased attention given to special-needs transportation.

That increased attention is exemplified by the National Conference and Exhibition on Transporting Students with Disabilities and Preschoolers, whose 17th edition will draw hundreds of pupil transportation professionals to Little Rock, Ark., for several days in March. The event offers more than 40 sessions on various special-needs topics.

To assess current challenges and trends in special-needs transportation, SBF Executive Editor Thomas McMahon posed the following questions to members of the conference’s tenured faculty.

Has transporting students with special needs become more difficult in the past few years?
SUSAN SHUTRUMP: Definitely. Improvements in medical technology have saved many lives and allowed more children with complex conditions and severe disabilities to attend public schools. This technology has also provided more specialized adaptive equipment that can be difficult to transport, as we often don’t have “best practice” safety principles to refer to. Rather, we have to begin to develop them as a team. In addition, as legislation has stressed serving students in the “least restrictive environment,” we have the challenge of transporting students on more traditional routes to more places.

JEAN ZIMMERMAN: There is no question in my mind that transporting students with special needs has definitely has become more difficult in the past few years. Modern medicine and technology have improved the lives of many students that in the past were not able to ride the yellow school bus. In turn, that has meant transporting students with more medically complex conditions, with expensive and sophisticated equipment. In turn, the medical needs of some students have also necessitated the need for a nurse or other medically trained person to ride the bus with the students. And in turn, this newer, complex medical equipment has increased the training needs of those transporting students with special needs. Unless there is ongoing training of staff, there is a risk of not keeping up-to-date with the newest medical equipment and often complex wheelchair systems. I’m currently working with a student to help him receive a $36,000 wheelchair that we will be transporting on the bus. Needless to say, we will be doing extensive training with this wheelchair system.

PAULINE GERVAIS: We continue to face challenges with funding and trying to provide the right environment and equipment when transporting students with disabilities. With the effort to provide the least restrictive environment, there are more students now riding the general-education bus. As a result, transporters need to reevaluate existing resources: Do they have the correct equipment to safely transport, and how do they find the funds to purchase the equipment needed?

LINDA BLUTH: There are a number of challenges based on severity of disability, funding limitations and location and pick-up of students with disabilities. Two populations presenting increased challenges are students with autism, which have increased in numbers, and children with emotional disturbance.

What would you say is a current top challenge for special-needs transporters?
CHERYL WOLF: I would say behavior management, both for the general population and the emotionally disabled.

PEGGY BURNS: Inter-agency and inter-departmental coordination, communication and cooperation are challenges. Even within a single school district, it can be difficult to effectively accomplish necessary planning and implementation strategies when the special-education department and the transportation department struggle to work together. These challenges can be heightened when working with co-ops, companies, other administrative units and personnel with various levels and areas of expertise.

SHUTRUMP: Keeping staff trained on all the new and ever-changing technology and best practice strategies while dealing with the shortage of drivers and special-education staff. Effective training involves working as a team, and yet some of the most important team members — drivers, trainers, occupational therapists, physical therapists, special-education teachers — are in short supply in many areas of this country.

ALEX ROBINSON: I would say training for all of the exceptions to the rule. There is so much new information out there on specific disabilities, and making sure that training is general but at the same time student- and situation-specific is not an easy task.

GERVAIS: Transporters still struggle with receiving student information required to safely transport. Additionally, funding is always an issue.

ZIMMERMAN: Training, and then the monitoring of the training. With all the new medical equipment, expensive wheelchairs and more medically involved students, there is such an ongoing challenge to find the time, budget and expertise to do the training. I feel that everyone in transportation wants to truly do their best for the students that they are transporting, but due to lack of training they are often not provided with the necessary knowledge to do a good job. Training also involves a whole team of people bringing together their expertise and knowledge. A critical member of the team is the student’s occupational and/or physical therapist. They are the trained experts in knowing about the student’s wheelchairs, their muscle tone, their ability to transfer, etc.

Is there a particular medical device or other piece of equipment that is being used more and more on special-needs buses?
SHUTRUMP: Many districts across the country are seeing an increase in students who use three-wheeled scooters on the school bus. Changes in funding for power wheelchairs have prompted more of these mobility devices, as they tend to be cheaper than other power wheelchairs. Unfortunately, this is a problem for many students, as the safest way for these students to travel is to transfer out of the scooter, and this is often not possible or feasible for them to do on the bus.

GERVAIS: Mobility devices seem to change on a regular basis. This presents a challenge because they are so different and come in all shapes and sizes. As a result, each time we see a new piece of equipment, we determine how to secure the device and whether the student can be transferred to a seat or will remain in the mobility device during transport. Unfortunately, this may cause a delay in when the service begins.

ROBINSON: We are seeing more attachments to wheelchairs that are more difficult to remove.

WOLF: As Sue and Pauline said, we’re seeing more and more of the three-wheeled scooters on the school bus.

ZIMMERMAN: I would say that in the past few years, we have seen more and more students who must use some type of mobility device. However, there is such a wide variety of mobility devices currently on the market, and depending on the funding source, the student may be provided with a wheelchair that is really not even providing for his medical needs, let alone transportation needs. We do have wheelchairs that have been specially designed for use as a seating position during transportation, with clearly marked tie-down locations. This is commonly called the WC 19 wheelchair. However, the problem is that third-party payers often won’t pay for this transit-option wheelchair.

{+PAGEBREAK+} Do you think that drivers and attendants are typically given as much medical information as they should be given on their passengers?
BLUTH: No, and for the wrong reasons. Confidentiality is cited as the reason. Training regarding confidentiality should resolve concerns.

SHUTRUMP: I agree. Often special-education staff or district staff will cite confidentiality as the rationale for not giving information to transportation staff. I always refer these misinformed team members to the white paper written by Peggy on the NASDPTS Website [www.nasdpts.org/reports.html]. Another problem that I see is that often transporters are given very technical information without explanation as to its importance on the school bus. The team needs to digest this information and work together to analyze the bus environment and make sure all the students’ needs are met.

WOLF: I would say more now than in the past, thanks to Peggy’s white paper. The special-education departments are beginning to realize that transporters have educated themselves and know what rights they have in this complicated business of transporting students with disabilities.

ZIMMERMAN: I think that we have made some in-roads in the area of sharing medical information, but we still have a long way to go. There is no question that transportation staff have a need to know this medical information. Although special education needs to help provide this information, I do feel that it’s now time for transportation supervisors to become more vocal about their need for this information — they can no longer just wait for it to be brought to them.

GERVAIS: There is still a significant gap between transportation and special education. Unfortunately, transportation seldom receives all the information needed to safely transport. As a result, the driver and attendant usually receive little or no information prior to transporting.

BURNS: I second what Sue said about the problems in this area. In addition, just as the use of jargon is not helpful, so, too, communication of students’ “labels” is of little value without discussion of the “so what” of that label: Transportation professionals must be provided information and training concerning the actual impact of the student’s special needs on the transportation environment and service.

ROBINSON: In this district, drivers and attendants are given the information they need, but it is not uncommon for smaller districts to have an issue with this. Often the special educators aren’t as educated on the legal issues and requirements as we are.

Would you say that the turnover rate is significantly different for special-needs drivers than it is for regular-route drivers?
SHUTRUMP: Yes. It is a tough job that not all people can or should do. Drivers who have passengers with special needs have all the responsibilities of the regular-route drivers plus so many more.

ZIMMERMAN: Driving the school bus in itself is a very critical job, but when you add loading and unloading wheelchairs, making judgments about possible medical emergencies and being prepared for evacuating a bus with special-needs students, that is a whole different ballpark. I think the turnover rate is due to the unions and the bidding system in which people with seniority get to bid on the special-ed runs — often thinking they are easier.

BLUTH: I’ve never seen research that has demonstrated a greater rate of attrition. I’ve read and heard hearsay about this. From my experience, middle school is the most challenging.

GERVAIS: In my experience, once drivers have the chance to work with students with disabilities, they are more apt to stay, because they love working with their students. They usually stay on special-ed routes throughout their career.

WOLF: I agree. It takes a special person to work with our special-needs population, and once that bond is formed, they are hooked.

Emergency evacuation drills are obviously important in pupil transportation, but are there some cases when it’s not feasible to conduct them with certain special-needs passengers?
ZIMMERMAN: There is no doubt in my mind that all students with special needs need to be involved with emergency evacuation drills. After all, how do students with special needs learn? Repetition, repetition and more repetition. With that said, I do feel that there are some students who are so medically involved that we would not actually physically take them through the entire drill. However, we should most definitely talk them through the whole drill, assuring them that we would indeed physically take them off the bus in the case of a real emergency. This is critical not only for this student but his fellow bus riders. However, you can’t just talk about what you would do. Your actual training must include simulation of disconnecting equipment and then actual lifting and dragging of a mannequin or other weighted object off the bus. I stress in all my training that when school systems are doing emergency evacuation planning and drills, the involvement of the occupational and physical therapists is essential for the protection and safety of all those involved. Also, this is where you need to involve your local emergency teams. They will be a critical link in a true emergency.

SHUTRUMP: All students with special needs should be involved in evacuation in terms of talking through the process during the drill. In some cases, students have such complex conditions that the risks of being physically involved or evacuated in the drill outweigh the benefits of being involved. The team should make the decision about the level of involvement. As I like to say in training, when we get on an airplane, we can learn a great deal from the emergency procedures demonstration, but we don’t all have to get out on the wing and try out the inflatable slide.

Tell me about something you’re each going to be presenting at the upcoming conference.
SHUTRUMP: A couple of years ago, I was very fortunate to work with Miriam Manary from the University of Michigan as she presented crash test videos of some equipment misuse scenarios. She’s tested some new scenarios that represent things we typically see on school buses transporting students with special needs.

The new videos will be shown as we discuss the best-practice principles that should be followed to avoid the problems that could result from the misuses. I’ve used some of the original crash tests in training I have done over the past few years and have frequently been told by participants how effective Miriam’s work is in convincing transporters to closely follow best-practice principles.

BURNS: “Hot Topics in Special Education Law and Litigation” will stress key themes of interest to school transportation professionals and special educators. Fact patterns from recent cases will provide the stories, and we’ll zero in on those areas that present true risk of distraction from our mission and significant cost in terms of time and money. A significant focus will be the dangers of inaction and passive reliance on both “what we’ve always done” and easy solutions.

ROBINSON: I’m going to give a presentation on becoming leaders within this industry using the tools we have within.

ZIMMERMAN: I’ll be presenting a pre-conference session on emergency evacuation drills of students with special needs. We’ll begin with a lecture presentation but will then go outside and get down and dirty. Outside, we’ll have a school bus, where I’ll be teaching how to take a student still in their wheelchair down the back of the bus.

BLUTH: I will be presenting on charter school transportation challenges and students with disabilities. There are many considerations for addressing this special-needs population.

GERVAIS: I’ll co-present with Cheryl on the basics of special-needs transportation, which is an overview of the legal and operational requirements for transporters new to the field or attendees who want to review IDEA [Individuals With Disabilities Education Act] compliance issues and best practices.

WOLF: Also, the curriculum writing committee will premiere the 2008 update of NHTSA’s eight-hour National Child Passenger Safety Training for School Buses. It originally premiered at this conference, and we’re pleased to present the 2008 update.

LINDA BLUTH, Ed.D., Ph.D., is director of the Office of Quality Assurance & Monitoring, Division of Special Education/Early Intervention Services, Maryland Department of Education, Baltimore.

PEGGY BURNS, Esq., is a consultant and owner of Education Compliance Group Inc., Lafayette, Colo.

PAULINE GERVAIS is director of transportation services for Denver Public Schools

ALEXANDRA ROBINSON, M.Ed., is director of transportation services at San Diego Unified School District.

SUSAN SHUTRUMP, OTR/L, is supervisor of occupational and physical therapy services at Trumbull County (Ohio) Educational Service Center.

CHERYL WOLF is safety and training supervisor for Lafayette (Ind.) School Corp.

JEAN ZIMMERMAN, PT, is supervisor of occupational and physical therapy for the School District of Palm Beach County (Fla.).

Comments ( 6 )
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  • Kristina

     | about 6 years ago

    Is there an adaptable step that can be added to a regular yellow school bus to accommodate exceptionally small/short children? My daughter is exceptionally small for her age and I was told there may be a special adaptable step that may be added (or perhaps a certain bus can be used which already has this adaptable step) so that she can step onto the school bus without difficulty. Please let me know if this is a possibility and if this adaptation exists. Than you.

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