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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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Respond quickly
When a tragic event occurs, it is necessary to take smart and immediate action. To do so, all critical information must be collected as soon as possible. Debbie Spitzer-Lawson, driver instructor for Central Unified School District in Fresno, Calif., says that there are two initial questions you must ask yourself when you find that somethingÕs gone wrong. "The first things you want to know are: Were there students on board and what was the severity of the accident?" The most important details must be obtained quickly so the right people can be informed. If necessary, paramedics, the fire department and other appropriate assistance must be contacted. The quicker all relevant information is gathered, the easier communication becomes between school officials, law enforcement and the public.

Another aspect of a quick and efficient response is securing the accident scene. This involves finding out who is currently at the scene and determining who should and shouldn't be there. It also entails finding and helping anyone who needs assistance. Hoglund says that securing the scene of an accident can be very confusing, and identifying people - especially children - can be difficult. He advises that, for identification purposes, you always take a shoe from any child who is rushed away in an ambulance. "Even if you know who was on the bus, you don't know which way they went. But most parents will recognize their child's shoe," he says. Clagg contends that a speedy response can depend heavily on your original planning. He recommends school transportation officials target hot routes in potentially dangerous areas. If you know the places where an accident is most likely to occur, you will have an easier time getting to the correct site and knowing possible causes of the accident.

Develop a PR strategy
Anytime a school bus accident involves a fatal injury, news of the story will begin spreading almost immediately. The manner in which information about the incident is reported will often aggravate the worries of the victims and their families, while stirring up the concerns of the school system and community. Organizing a method of handling media relations will help shape attitudes and perceptions of your operation's performance. In his report for Dallas Area Rapid Transit, Morgan J. Lyons, a media relations specialist, prescribes four steps for responding to a crisis situation - action, admission, access and analysis.

Action - Give your immediate attention to the problem. Regardless of how difficult it may be, you must face the public.

Admission - Explain what happened and the apparent reasons for it. You can also ease tensions by outlining possible resolutions.

Access - Let everyone see that efforts are being taken to help. The approach you take can be as important as the result.

Analysis - Ask yourself questions about how the plan was executed. The objective is to uncover what measures can be taken to improve your communications plan.

Speed is vital when dealing with the media. Your first move in reaction to a crisis should be to promptly assign a public relations spokesperson. News coverage of the situation will begin to mount very rapidly, so a thoughtful and appropriate statement should be made to set the tone. "We issued our first media releases in time to make the 12 p.m. news that day. We also sent home a letter with each student to give parents as much information as soon as we could," says Donehoo. He adds that contacts were sent to every school in the district, and all the principals were briefed shortly after the crash.

Comfort the grieving
Naturally, the morale of parents, students and others associated with a tragedy will be very low. The community will be immersed in negative emotion. People will harbor different feelings about death, ranging from sadness to fear to confusion. Emotional and physical assistance should be made readily available to those who need it. The most common way to help those in need is through grief counselors. Most hospitals have programs aimed specifically at helping people deal with tragedies. Districts will frequently pool together local social workers and volunteers to help out. Some districts even have family resource centers in the schools.

Addressing the issue of student morale can be complicated. Children tend to deal with tragedies very differently at different ages. It is best to expose students to professional counselors who have been trained to help young people cope with loss. The needs of parents are a little different. Clagg says that they are skeptical of the department after a fatality and are mainly concerned with budgets and training procedures. "We deal with parents by being honest and up front with them and by gathering as much information as possible and sharing it with them," he says. Spitzer-Lawson agrees.

In April of this year, a Central Unified school bus collided with a pickup truck, causing a fire inside the bus that killed the driver. Original reports did not provide an accurate description of what caused the wreck. "We had to reassure parents that accidents like these are freak accidents, and we pulled statistics to show how low fatalities are on school buses," she says. Also, remembrance gatherings, candlelight vigils and dedication of parks and monuments can help communities cope with great losses. The greatest healing factor, however, is time.

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