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March 01, 2010  |   Comments (0)   |   Post a comment

Enduring the Aftermath of a School Bus Tragedy

An accident involving a fatality will test the mettle of any school bus operation. Overcoming one takes careful planning, practice and systematic execution.

by Joey Campbell, Assistant Editor

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Although school buses are undeniably the safest way for students to travel, accidents on the road do happen. Unfortunately, accidents sometimes have tragic results, leaving behind a wake of pain and distress in the schools and surrounding community. Transportation departments are usually forced to bear much of the burden, and restoring order becomes the operator's unenviable responsibility. According to Gordy Hoglund, owner of Hoglund Transportation in Monticello, Minn., the situation can quickly get out of control after a tragedy. "There is so much chaos. It's an awful deal," he says.

On April 10, 1997, a speeding gravel truck ran a stop sign and plowed into a Hoglund school bus carrying students from a Monticello-area elementary school. The ensuing disaster left four dead, including three students onboard the bus, and many more hospitalized with serious injuries. It was Minnesota's worst school bus accident in decades. To handle the formidable tasks that arose after this catastrophe, it took strong faith and dedication. "Two days after the accident happened, I didn't want this job anymore," says Hoglund. "That is why you must keep your confidence up." He says that believing in yourself and knowing that you are doing the right thing will help you get through a tragedy. However, confidence alone won't solve every problem. Being prepared for the worst is equally important. Knowing what to expect and where to devote energy and resources will allow you to operate during the most high-pressure situations. There is no way to prevent an accidental tragedy, but being ready to react when one occurs is the next best thing.

Put together a plan
Every school bus operation should have an emergency plan in place well before an accident actually happens. The plan should take into consideration every potentially urgent scenario that might arise. Many states, in fact, have a uniform emergency procedure that every school district is required to follow. The Murray County School District in Chatsworth, Ga., needed such a plan on March 28, 2000, after a school bus-train collision on the Tennessee-Georgia border claimed the lives of three children. Having a system for allocating labor and catering to those in need was essential in the days following the crash.

Dean Donehoo, administrative services director for Murray County Schools, says the district uses an emergency management plan that defines the duties of transportation staff. "Some people are assigned media relations, some are told to go to the scene and investigate and some are assigned to deal with the concerns of the schools," he says. Still, Donehoo says that his district's plan lacked provisions for working with surrounding school systems. "You need to have ways for different school systems to help each other in emergencies," he says. "It gives you more resources to deal with a problem. Especially in a small school system like ours."

Practice the plan
Having a plan is crucial to a school bus operation after an accident. But a plan is useless if the employees expected to abide by it do not have confidence in it. "I think everyone is familiar with emergency plans, but I would tell directors to constantly review the plans and look for weaknesses in them," says Transportation Director David Clagg of Christian County Schools in Herndon, Ky.

Clagg was head of the district's transportation department in November 2000 when a 5-year-old boy was killed in a school bus accident. The event convinced him that emergency procedures must be consistently re-analyzed. Additionally, he says, routine practice helps greatly. "I felt good about being able to deal with a media investigation one on one," Clagg says. "But it's different when you have 20 people at once trying to put words in your mouth, and you are not at liberty to release certain information that the government is in charge of." To counter this kind of problem, everyone from management down to drivers and students should have an understanding of what a real crisis situation is like. Effective preparation techniques include roleplaying and repetitive drilling in safety exercises. Frequently, the fire department, police and other emergency organizations will demonstrate bus evacuation and rescue drills.

Many school districts provide students with training about the danger zones around a bus. By knowing and practicing the right course of action, you will be better equipped to make a smart decision when the time comes. "When it comes down to the wire, and your brain is running in a hundred different directions, it is nice to be able to count on something that has already been thought out in a cool sense," says Greg Kautza, director of administrative services for the Merrill (Wis.) School District. Kautza helped resolve the problems facing his school district following the death of a fifth-grade student who was crushed beneath her own school bus in October 1998.

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