The 10th National Conference and Exhibition on Transporting Students with Disabilities and the Preschool Population took place in Phoenix in early March. In attendance were more than 575 transportation officials and health professionals from the United States, Canada and Guam. Though topics varied from specific equipment-oriented sessions to more general discussions of how to deal with varying personalities, the underlying thread was the importance of having a diverse, knowledgeable group of experts consult in making transportation decisions for special-needs students.
Michael Wagner, vice president, Alpha School Bus Company, Crestwood, Ill.
Bluth and Burns emphasized that this panel of experts represented the variety of knowledge-bases that you should tap into when addressing the concerns of special-needs students -- particularly when their parents are making extreme or unreasonable demands. Consult with occupational and physical therapists (OTs and PTs), transportation consultants, special-needs experts, state directors, teachers, administrators and lawyers to get a variety of input on situations. Bluth and Burns also emphasized that the panelists are excellent resources for you in your daily operation and can be contacted with questions you may have trouble addressing locally.
Solving 'problem' cases
Here is one of the 10 scenarios addressed by experts in the session: A parent demands that an ambulatory pre-school child who is 4 years old be carried onto the bus. Finlayson-Schueler responded to the scenario, recommending that the transporter form a partnership with the parent by saying, "My goal for your child is for your child to be safe. Would you agree with that goal?" Once the partnership has been formed, you explain to the parent that carrying the child up the steps may actually increase the risk of injury to the child. You then ex-plain how the child would be better served by having the adult guide and guard the child from behind as he climbs the steps.
Gervais addressed a different scenario with a similar approach -- forming a part-nership and appealing to the parent's concern for her child's safety. In this case, the situation involved an 8-year-old child who needed to wear a "harness" to prevent dangerous misbehavior on the bus. Gervais said the first step is to agree with the parent. "I wouldn't want my child in a harness either," she would say. Then she would explain the need for some sort of safety restraint, making sure not to use the term "harness," which is very unappealing to a parent. "During the transition, in teaching the child to ride the bus safely, he needs to use this brand new device that we have," she said, adding that you should call it a vest, rather than a harness. Bluth agreed. "You've got to have the lingo to convince them," she said.
Learning to communicate
In a session titled, "Make My Day," Leeds Pickering, coordinator of school transportation for the Wyoming Department of Education, continued the confer-ence's trend on emphasizing teamwork, both within the transportation department and with parents and those outside the school system. He gave a state director's perspective on dealing with difficult situations. By the time a situation comes to him, he said, it has reached or surpassed the difficult stage.
One word of advice he gave attendees was, "Make sure you don't take the problems that aren't yours." As an example, he explained how one mother complained that she would lose her job if they didn't transport her child to school. The woman had chosen to send her child to a school that wasn't within walking distance. In the state of Wyoming, the school is not required to transport when a parent makes that choice. Though you can have sympathy for a person in such a predicament, it's not your duty to take on the problem she created, said Pickering.
Pickering stressed the importance of communicating with parents and other parties, even if all that you can communicate at the moment is that you have no an-swer. "If you don't know the answer, tell them you don't know. Then arrange to find out," he said. And make sure you get back to that person when you say you will. "If I tell them I'm going to call them at 10:00 in the morning, I call them at 10:00 in the morning, whether I have the answer or not," he said. If he doesn't have the answer, he will explain that and buy some more time.
Maintaining communication and being a person of your word gives the parent confidence in your abilities and demonstrates your concern for their situation. And, when possible, mentioning a personal detail about your own life, such as the fact that you too have children, helps the parent believe that you can relate to their situation, said Pickering. "They realize that you're a real-live person. You walk, you talk, you have kids."
Pickering, like Bluth, stressed the importance of using the right lingo when communicating with parents. Don't use transportation terminology, such as bus types. Don't quote rules and regulations. "Thirteen-inch rump width space is allowed per seat per kid is a bad explanation for why their kid cant have a seat on the bus," said Pickering. Speak in plain English and use terms that the parent can relate to, like "safety." Don't hide behind laws and don't use lack of funding as an excuse for not satisfying their demands. "People don't like to hear that you can't do it because of the money," he said. Explain the safety reasons behind your actions. If safety isn't the reason for your decision, maybe the decision should be re-evaluated.
As a final note, Pickering reminded attendees that they should know who their state director is and who is in charge of special education in the state, because it may not be the same person. Every state is organized differently, and special-needs transportation may fall under the Department of Education, the Department of ublic Safety, the Department of Transportation or the Department of Health. "Know your audience. Know what youÕre talking about. Know your state director. Plain and simple," Pickering said in closing.
Identifying key issues
On the 10th anniversary of the special-needs conference, speakers and attendees reflected on the past and the lessons it might hold for the future. Among the concerns expressed for the future were new regulations for transporting Head Start students, means of accommodating an increasing number of special-needs students, dealing with increasingly demanding parents and keeping up with new equipment, such as wheelchairs and tie-down systems.
Sessions were held on loading and securing wheelchair students, evacuating special-needs students, training drivers, understanding varying disabilities, deal-ing with child safety seats and more. In a special OT/PT/transporter chat room and forum, varying parties involved in special-needs transportation came to-gether for round-table discussions focused on learning and team building. The conference also featured a trade show, where more than 40 vendors displayed their special-needs transportation wares.
Special-needs transportation videos
1st place -- "Car Seats on School Buses," Hunterdon Central/Flemington-Raritan Joint Transportation, Flemington, N.J.
2nd place -- "North Carolina Special-Needs School Bus Roadeo Demonstration/Training Video," North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, Raleigh, N.C.
3rd place -- "A Commitment to Safety," Creighton School District, Phoenix.
Special-needs transportation manuals
1st place, association -- "Transporting Students with Disabilities," National As-sociation for Pupil Transportation, Albany, N.Y.
1st place, state -- "Florida Guidelines for Seating of Pre-school Age Children in School Buses," Florida Department of Education.
1st place, local -- "Special-needs Transportation Handbook: Northside Independent School District 2000-2001," Northside Independent School District, San Antonio, Texas.