As I attempt to secure his wheelchair, a teenage boy catches me with a left hook that comes out of nowhere. Fortunately, he does not have a lot of upper body strength. I end up with a sore jaw instead of something worse. As a new bus driver, I quickly learn that students with behavior problems can be very interesting to work with, indeed. A couple of decades later, I am a supervisor, but still heavily involved in serving students with special needs. Searching for answers on how to provide mandated transportation of students with severe behavior problems and, at the same time, protect the safety of drivers and aides, I compare notes with colleagues in my area.
Horror stories abound
John Smead, transportation director at Sunnyside School District in Tucson, listens as I paint a disturbing picture for him: A bus for special-needs students rolls down a busy street in your school district. In a fit of anger, a large male high school student rips the air conditioning vents out of the bus ceiling and throws them out the window. A motorist swerves and honks. The driver pulls the bus over and, with the help of the aide, tries to calm the agitated teen, who rips the vinyl covers off one of the seats. He flings the vinyl and foam padding onto the street. I look at Smead. He doesn’t seem shocked. The plot continues: The driver and monitor are grateful that the mentally challenged youth has vented his frustration on the equipment and bus interior, and not on their persons. But they fear that they might not be so lucky next time. Later the same day, they threaten to quit. You contact the director of special education and are informed that the district is required to transport this student because of federal regulations. His outbursts, including the demolition of the bus interior, are manifestations of his disability. Thus, the district must bear the cost, and the employees will have to endure the severe behavior. You are assured that teachers and special-education representatives will devise strategies to minimize the student’s behavior. You are hardly comforted. Smead patiently waits for me to finish, and reveals a story of his own. On a particular special-needs bus, he remembers having nothing but difficulty. The behavior of the students was so severe that the driver and monitor feared for their lives. Finally, in desperation, Smead hired an off-duty police officer to ride as an attendant for the entire school year. When he was finally able to find just the right driver-monitor team, Smead dispensed with the police escort. Do these stories sound far-fetched? Could something like this happen in your school district? A circumstance similar to the first one happened — not once, but almost daily — when I worked as a field supervisor at another school district.
Find the right combination
Fortunately, we were able to find a driver-monitor team that was more capable of working with extreme special-needs scenarios. Aided by changes in the student’s medication and classroom interventions, this new team saw the incidents dwindle from almost daily to only occasionally. Smead has observed that some transportation employees are more capable of working with special-needs students than others. At Sunnyside, they have often succeeded in matching troubled students with drivers and aides who can meet the challenge. “Once you get that match that works, you have to maintain it at all costs,” he says. Unfortunately, even employees who can handle students with extreme behaviors can burn out. At that point, they need to be reassigned to an “easier” route. Smead believes that special training could help to prepare drivers and aides for handling students with extreme behavior problems. But there are limits to how well you can prepare drivers and aides for this type of challenge. “I’m not sure the professionals always know what to do with them,” Smead says. “That’s why you see these kids bounce from one program to another. If the psychologists and counselors have trouble working with these children, how’s it going to work any better on the bus?”
Federal laws may require provision of transportation for special-needs students, but what happens when they create an environment on the school bus that compromises the safety of the driver and other passengers? Under federal guidelines, a child must be provided the least restrictive environment available. That environment may not be a school bus in every case. Smead has tried alternatives to school buses for students with behavior issues. He has had mixed results with that approach. “We can push the problem off on another agency to do the transportation for us, but I’m not sure that’s the answer for us,” Smead says. “We’ve had other agencies give up on these kids. They call and say they’re no longer going to transport them.” Ron Stacy, transportation director at Tucson Unified School District, has also been forced to use outside providers, such as van companies or taxi services. These can be less than ideal, he says, because the drivers neither have the special training nor the extensive background checks of the school transportation staff. “Parents cannot dictate that the child’s transportation always must be a district school bus,” Stacy says. “As long as it is free and appropriate transportation, it can even be a taxi cab. We do make a concerted effort to provide a district vehicle, though.” Stacy says a taxi is a last resort. For example, sometimes a child will require a specially equipped bus. It can take six months or more from the time the bus is ordered until the district takes delivery. Under those circumstances, a taxi might be the only interim transportation available.
A driver’s perspective
Barbara Easley, an experienced driver of special-needs children at Tucson Unified School District, and Carmen Morales, her experienced bus monitor, are confronted with transporting a mentally challenged student who frequently refuses to get off the bus. When asked to deboard, he hits, bites or tries to fight with the two women. A solution must be found because Easley and Morales are receiving bruises, scratches and occasional bites. Normally, Easley has a quick joke and a laugh, and Morales has a friendly smile. But this time I can read the frustration as they come to my office looking for help. Over the years, very few busing problems have flustered these employees, so our office staff knows it is time to take note. Sometimes you think you’ve “seen it all” until a new special-needs student gets assigned to your route, Easley says. Just as Smead discovered, finding the right match of staff to student helps tremendously. Easley reports that substituting a male monitor for Morales, who is very petite, helps tone down this particular child’s behavior. The school staff changes his IEP (Individualized Education Program) to require a male monitor — an unusual solution to a student’s unusual problem. Easley has thoughts on the subject of adequate training to prepare workers for students like this: “No matter how much training we may have, you cannot be prepared when it [severe behavior] starts the first time. It’s a huge surprise.” Drivers and attendants like Easley and Morales have a huge stake in employee safety. If injured, their livelihoods, families and quality of life could be affected. While transportation of special-needs students is federally mandated, Easley believes “they need to make a federal law for drivers’ and children’s safety.”
No, we have no easy answers
Back at my desk, I try to put it all together. My search did not reveal any “pat answers” or easy fixes. Combining my thoughts with those of other professionals in special-needs transportation, I conclude that each special-needs student comes with his or her own unique requirements and demands. Perhaps the best that can be done is to apply the following strategies: find employees who are compatible with the student, provide on-the-job training as situations arise, maintain open communications with professionals who work with the individual and know the alternatives to school bus transportation. Each day we encounter a different situation, and we gain new skills in meeting the needs of these very special children.
Ken Laue is a field safety supervisor at Tucson (Ariz.) Unified School District.