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August 01, 2006  |   Comments (8)   |   Post a comment

Bus Empty?: Solving the Stranded-Pupil Problem

Why are children continually abandoned on school buses? The reasons abound, but so do the possible solutions. Applying multiple strategies to train, remind and check up on drivers will help ensure the safety of precious cargo.

by Thomas McMahon - Also by this author

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Planning for prevention
There are myriad methods that pupil transporters can employ to prevent children from being left on buses. Many officials concur that no single system is foolproof, so having more than one in place is important.

A prevention program should begin with pre-service training and continue with in-service sessions. Drivers should be taught not only how to check their bus, but also what can happen if they don’t.

At Cecil County, drivers are instructed to check each seat on the way to the back and to look at the floor in front of each seat — which also gives a view of the space under the next seat — while walking to the front.

“When done correctly, it takes 30 to 45 seconds,” Markwardt says. “That’s one of the things we try to emphasize. Even if you’re in a hurry, that’s not going to make much of a difference.”

The transportation department at North Hunterdon-Voorhees uses the following phrase to ensure that drivers know their responsibility: “Check all seats and floor spaces for children left on or sleeping.”

Oram says that an extra step drivers can take after walking up and down the aisle is to go outside the bus and open one of the emergency doors to get a good view of the floor.

Drivers have to be aware that their checking must be thorough. Though it may seem unlikely, an inattentive driver can walk up and down the aisle and still miss a child.

Jones notes that a district in Washington has a surveillance video in which a driver walks to the back of a bus and returns empty-handed. But later in the footage, a youngster pops out from one of the seats. Boucher says that she has seen a picture in which a boy wearing a black jacket is curled up on top of a wheel well, rendering himself nearly indistinguishable at a glance.

“You could definitely miss a kid if you’re not looking closely,” Boucher says.

One way to reduce the risk posed by distractions is to require that drivers’ routines include two checks per run — one when the bus becomes empty and another when it returns to the depot or other parking site. Another benefit is that checking the bus before leaving a school drop-off can eliminate a lot of backtracking if a sleeping student is found then rather than at the bus lot.

Refreshing their memory
Part of a supervisor’s role in preventing incidents of abandonment is making sure that drivers are constantly reminded of this element of their duties.

“You have to get to the point that you remember to check your bus like you remember to put on your clothes before you walk outside in the morning,” Markwardt says.

Oram came up with a clever way to keep the concept on everyone’s minds. Each month, he designs a poster with a new slogan that stresses the need for post-trip checking. A recent edition shows a photo of children playing ball and reads, “Be on the ball, check for us all,” followed by the aforementioned “Check all seats and floor spaces...” wording. The posters, which are in the form of Microsoft Word documents, are hung up in the transportation office and placed in the drivers’ mailboxes.

“The hardest part is coming up with a catchy phrase,” Oram says. After that, he says it only takes five minutes to design the poster. He recommends spending time on these sorts of efforts to help avoid spending much more in dealing with the aftermath of a child being left on a bus.

In a similar endeavor, David Broussard, a former school bus driver and now city councilman in New Iberia, La., designed a sticker with a concise message — “Check for sleepers” — to be placed inside the bus above the service door. Broussard says he spent $700 out of his own pocket to have 10,000 of the stickers printed. His goal is to get one in every school bus in his state. He says he’s given out about a quarter of them so far.

Broussard says that in addition to catching the bus driver’s attention, the stickers remind students to look out for their fellow passengers.

Becoming equipped
Various forms of equipment can help ensure that drivers walk to the back of the bus after a run. They can also serve as visual cues for a supervisor walking through the yard that buses have been checked.

Among the more simple items are flags and signs that drivers post in the rear window. One common version is a sign that reads “BUS EMPTY” and sticks to the glass with two suction cups.

Bee Line Bus Transportation in Phoenix recently began using signs that are printed on fluorescent paper and laminated and read, “This bus has been checked and cleaned.” The signs can be attached with Velcro or suction cups.

Bee Line General Manager Kathy Roadlander says that if a driver forgets to hang the sign before leaving the bus in the yard, a supervisor will place a notice in his or her mailbox.

On the more complex end of the equipment spectrum, there are electronic systems in which the driver must deactivate an alarm at the back of the bus before exiting.

One of these units is made by Child Check-Mate Systems in Navan, Ontario. President Bob Moran says that one of the key advantages of the product is that even if a driver becomes distracted, the alarm will serve as a reminder of his or her duty if the key is turned off before the system has been disarmed.

“It’s as much of a job security device as it is a safety device for children,” Moran says. “We want to appeal to the drivers first and foremost. All they have to do is push the button as part of their normal routine.”

Markwardt’s operation is in the process of retrofitting its entire fleet with the Child Reminder System, which is made by CRS Electronics in Welland, Ontario. The device requires drivers to walk to the back of the bus after turning off the ignition and raise the rear door handle or press a deactivator button. Markwardt says that one of the reasons he chose the system is that it turns on the interior lights during the checking process.

At Clark County, every bus has two systems to help ensure that no student is left stranded. One is a red flag to be hung in the rear window so it’s visible from outside of the bus. The other is Seattle-based Zonar Systems’ EVIR Package. A radio frequency identification tag is placed at the back of the bus, among other places, and the driver must hold a reader device up to it during the inspection process.

Some pupil transporters are wary of relying too much on equipment. Lionel Pinn, transportation supervisor for the Centralia/Chehalis (Wash.) Pupil Transportation Co-op, focuses more on holding drivers up to high standards.

“I feel you can have all the bells, lights, horns, empty signs and whistles you want, but people are still going to circumvent the system and, yes, make mistakes,” Pinn says.

According to Pinn, requiring a driver to be a professional should be a program’s No. 1 priority. “Along with this designation come professional expectations and consequences,” he says.

Fitting the punishment
There are conflicting opinions on what punishment should follow a child-abandonment incident on a school bus. Many transportation officials say that a zero-tolerance policy is the only way to go.

At Clark County, a driver will be dismissed on the first incident of abandoning a child. Despenza says that no lesser punishment will suffice.

“We had more incidents when there was a lesser punishment,” he says. His operation used to average five to eight of these incidents per year.

“I ran the gamut on this with discipline,” Despenza says. It started as a warning, then was raised to suspension and then the suspension was lengthened. “But it still didn’t completely resolve the problem.”

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Every time I read one of the child left behind reports I’m shocked. How this can possibly happen with today’s safeguards in place? The most bewildering would be when there is a monitor on the bus. I am not aware of any bus that doesn’t have, at a minimum, a child check button located in the rear of the bus. Most busses are equipped with some sort of electronic monitoring, in our case we use the Zonar system. In order to load a student(s) you need to activate the ambers and reds, this arms the system. We have 3 separate checks, 1st when the key is turned off there is a audible alarm, to deactivate you will need to walk to the back of the bus (if there is a monitor, what is he /she doing). 2nd the Zonar system has a child check mode, 3 different sensors must be triggered, again one needs to walk back through the bus. 3rd The post trip check includes a 3 point sensor check again! When I’m back there I’ll hang the bus empty sign in the rear window. After all that, we radio base announcing child check complete for bus XXXXX. The last thing we do is “clock out” on Zonar. The question still remains “how can you leave/miss a student”? Before leaving the school grounds we do our mechanical check to assure no passengers remaining, I have found “little ones” asleep! That is why there is a child check requirement.

Frank G    |    Mar 07, 2015 06:23 AM

All of our bus driver sign a committment sheet at pre-service stating they will check bus. During school year they are required to hang a sign in back window declaring their bus has been checked. Result for 2 years no child left on bus.

B. Warfield    |    Jul 18, 2014 05:11 AM

The company I work for also ran into a problem similar to this about a decade ago. Unfortunately we had to relieve an extremely responsible driver and long-time employee after she made the mistake and left a child on her bus for less than an hour. Since then we have installed electronic systems to ensure it does not happen again, I believe it is called the Child Check System. It astounds me that these incidents continue to occur despite the availability and inexpensiveness of these systems. It is time for our school systems to start taking responsibility for the children they supervise and spending the little cash required to install them on our buses.

I'Miracle Johnson    |    May 22, 2013 06:33 AM

With modern buses never happen, when turn the ignition key off, a buzzer sounds loud till you go back open and close the emergency back door. 1-turn ignition key to acc. 2-Go back and turn off switch or open and close the back door 3-Come back up front, pick up your keys

xarneco    |    Oct 28, 2011 08:32 PM

drivers must be careful

AMENDA    |    May 06, 2011 01:56 AM

After leaving Detroit Public Schools I worked on developing a system for insuring students were not left on the bus. The system is called the ChildSaf System and is comprised of several components. This is an inexpensive system that all transportation operators can afford. It includes a district policy, procedures for drivers to follow following route completion, procedures for administrators to follow to insure driver compliance after each transport cycle, a reflectorized EMPTY sign attached to the rear window of the bus with special velcro, and training materials to emphasize the importance of the post route check for students. Electronic devices are great but do not provide the redundancy necessary to insure no child is left on the bus and do not provide a visual cue of the driver post route check. If all districts would just use the ChildSaf System, these problems would be almost entirely eliminated. In Detroit, with 600 buses, we went from 10-12 children left on the bus per year following route completion to O. Email me and I'll tell you how it works.

Dale Goby    |    Jan 26, 2011 11:56 AM

We too were subjected with children left on the bus and our solution was to post a "bus Empty" placard in the rear window of the bus during the post trip inspection. We thought it was a little bit over board at the time, but hey, it got the job done...

Chuck    |    Jan 19, 2011 06:55 AM

It is astonishing that this issue over time has went from "No harm - No foul" to "Leave a child - Leave Laidlaw" to "Leave a child - Go to prison." The airlines know how to properly present their employees and themselves in the press when a lost child is found hundreds of miles from his or her intended destination. Angry parents of misdirected kids found hundreds of miles form their departure point in that industry say the same thing parents say to this industry. But airline management knows how to turn a lemon event into lemonade. The lynching mentality is persistent with this issue, not just with some parents but also within industry ranks. Understand that every time the hostile employer open their mouths in the press they most clearly present what they are to their community’s potential workforce. Every school bus driver is vulnerable to missing a procedure, this one included. Who in their right mind can recommend their grandmother, other family members and friends drive school bus under the current hostile conditions these days? Does your community's employer terminate the employee on the first offense if a child is found unharmed while sleeping alone on one of your school buses? Is, 'Leave a child - Go to prison', the new slogan for school bus drivers in your community? The malbehaved misuse fear to get their way. The well behaved use hope. When uncertain concerning which is which - Don't drink the Kool-Aid! ~ James Kraemer, 2safeschools

James Kraemer    |    Jul 14, 2010 10:06 AM

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