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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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Reassure your drivers
Spitzer-Lawson says that sometimes accidents shake the drivers more than anyone else. "They have to drive by the site every day, so they can't avoid it," she explains. "It's a predominant thought out there on the road." Some effective techniques for dealing with driver morale are group discussions, skills testing and roadeos, reinforcement of safety precautions and adding driver aides and monitors on buses. With drivers, you must send the message that their security is important. Overall, paying greater attention to them, including training and evaluations, tells drivers that you support them.

Kautza says that another way to deal with driver emotions is to have them meet with people who understand what they are going through. "We got our driver in touch with another driver who had experienced the same thing in another town," he says. "It was the best thing that could happen for both drivers because they had mutual support and healing." Hoglund takes the same approach to persevering. He feels that people working in the same business can better associate with one another. "Sometimes it takes another person in the school bus field to understand your position and help you get through it," he says. "I called someone else who had a death in one of their school buses. I figured that it helped me, so maybe I could pass it on and help someone else."

Learn from the past
If there is any good in a school bus tragedy, it lies in its capacity to alert people to the need for improvements in a system. A tragedy can teach lessons that will allow better management of an operation in times of adversity. "If you talk to others, you can find things that they learned from a fatality and improve on them in your own system. You don't have to reinvent the wheel," says Clagg. Some of the lessons he's learned include having in-depth passenger information and photos, running criminal background checks on all employees, utilizing safety technology like cameras and, most importantly, having good documentation on every aspect of the transportation operation. "If you don't have good documentation, you may be left with the stigma that you caused a death," he warns.

Donehoo emphasizes the need for people to work together in emergencies. "It was the prime thing I learned out of all this," he says. He maintains that cooperation between schools, investigators, state and local municipalities, social workers, media and others at the scene of a disaster makes the job easier on everyone. In any case, tragedies are tough experiences and mistakes will be made. Policies to prevent future disasters can only be based on experience. Therefore, questioning your decisions and actions can help you find flaws in your operation and procedures that need correcting. Says Kautza, "We debrief after every situation to see how we could have handled it differently or what we could have done better."

A source of relief
Grief counselors provide emotional consolation for those involved in a tragedy. They help communities overcome traumatic events by letting people know they are not defenseless. Deborah Rivlin, a grief counselor for Boston Medical Center's Good Grief program, is experienced in counseling students, parents and faculty after school-related deaths. In late April, she was summoned to help after a bus crash in Canada killed four students. Rivlin says her objective is to bring positives from a tragedy. She helps children develop lifelong strength and coping skills after losing someone, making them better equipped to deal with future losses. To do this, she says, you must first train adults to confront the problem. "Students would rather talk to the people they already know and trust, like parents and teachers," she says. "So I try to give the right tools and skills to the adults."

Rivlin emphasizes the use of one-on-one and small group discussions. She advocates people opening up their homes to those in need. Memorial services are also great healing experiences, she says. After an incident, Rivlin stays around to offer her support for a couple of days. Typically, she spends a lot of time with parents and school staff members, trying to open lines of communication. "The crisis people leave after a few days, but the crisis is not over. So I have to do a good job with the adults because they will still be around after I'm gone," she says.

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