2. Proper Equipment
Even with the proper equipment, the responsibility of transporting special-needs students is supremely challenging. Imagine how difficult it would be with the wrong equipment. We're going to assume that you have functional wheelchair lifts, tiedowns and restraints. There are a number of manufacturers of each of these components, giving you options if you prefer one tiedown system, for example, over another. If your fleet has different types of lifts, tiedowns and restraints, drivers and aides should be taught how to use each system. And their technique should be reviewed frequently by qualified personnel. It can't be stressed too much that you should read the product manual and follow the instructions, especially concerning routine maintenance. It's far better to spend time properly maintaining a product than replacing it.
New wheelchair standard
Drivers and monitors need to be fully instructed on the proper handling of student mobility devices such as wheelchairs. A standard for transportable wheelchairs is in the final stages of approval by the Subcommittee for Wheelchairs and Transportation, which is working under the auspices of the American National Standards Institute and the Rehabilitation Engineering Society of North America. The standard, WC/19, has been five years in the making. It specifies strength and geometric requirements for wheelchair securement points and occupant restraint anchorage points. It also provides requirements and information for accessory components, seat inserts and postural support devices. Wheelchair manufacturers such as Sunrise Medical Inc. have designed units that meet the draft standard. School districts and contractors should work with physical and occupational therapists to inform students and parents that these wheelchairs will be available. School bus operators have little control over the selection and quality of wheelchairs used by students, but they still need to ensure that mobility devices are in safe working condition. Assuming that your special-needs bus is properly spec'd (see "Tips on Proper Spec'ing of Special-Needs Buses," December 1998), the focus turns to other key pieces of equipment:
Fire blankets: This versatile item can be used in many situations. For example, if there's a fire in the dashboard and the emergency exits are impassable, the blanket can be thrown over the blaze to allow evacuation through the service door. The blanket also can be draped over the sharp edges of metal and glass if evacuation is necessary through a broken-out window.
Seat-belt cutters: This a fairly common item on special-needs school buses. For a seat-belt cutter to be useful, however, it needs to be properly situated. If there's an accident and the driver is unable to free himself from his seat belt, the cutter must be within arm's reach. Additionally, it's critical that the driver and monitor know how to use it properly. That sounds like a no-brainer, but you might be surprised at the number of drivers who've never had any instruction in using the seat-belt cutter. Using a seat-belt cutter is not as easy as it seems. It should be angled at 45 degrees for maximum efficiency, and the seat belt needs to have some tension. If the belt is hanging loosely, it's better to release the clasp. If you don't have spare seat belt material at your disposal, you might be able to obtain some from vehicles at auto wrecking yards.
Bodily fluid clean-up kit: Again, hands-on training is key. For example, if you haven't taught your drivers how to remove the gloves without contaminating their hands, then they probably don't know how to do it. Also, you should make sure non-latex gloves are available in case the driver, aide or passengers are allergic to latex. This is a serious allergy; a severe case can be fatal.
3. Precise Communication
Transportation directors need to know how, when and to whom to communicate information. Many times, the key consideration is: Who needs to know and how much they need to know. For example, if a special-needs student has exhibited a behavior problem that is disrupting the school bus ride, the transportation director needs to decide how to disseminate that information. Sometimes there's a graduated system of communication depending on level of involvement. Other times, all of the players need to know all relevant information to make intelligent decisions about serving the needs of the student. Transportation directors should take an active role in gathering and disseminating relevant information. Rather than passively waiting for information to travel to their office, transportation officials should create opportunities by "percolating and perforating." Percolating involves circulating information, while perforating involves receiving information. Sometimes you have to "poke holes" in barriers to allow information to reach you, especially if you work in a department in which only bad news travels. Outside the transportation department, the way to support information-sharing opportunities is to get involved with building supervisors, physical and occupational therapists and the district's special-education department. That can include requesting to attend committee meetings and strategy sessions. In this way, a transportation director can learn how his department fits in with the rest of the school community, and vice versa.
Repeat instructions often
Maintaining strong communication lines between drivers, monitors and their special-needs passengers is essential, particularly in training youngsters to react properly in a variety of situations, including emergencies. Many special-education students may have difficulty when their routine is unexpectedly interrupted. Frequency of instruction is critical. For example, evacuation training drills are held three times a year in New York, but is that often enough to ensure that the children will remember what to do during an actual evacuation? You might want to make it part of a driver's weekly routine to coach her students on emergency evacuation procedures. That coaching can include showing the ambulatory students how to open the window or the emergency door. With the less able-bodied children, a driver can talk them through the process. For example, the driver might say, "If this were a real emergency, Johnny, I would take you out of your wheelchair and carry you through the rear emergency exit." This helps them to get accustomed to the driver's words and tone of voice, as well as her gestures and body language. If the driver regularly spends time communicating the process, the students will be more likely to respond appropriately in an emergency.