In a small rural town in Iowa, 10-year-old Josh, who has autism, rode the bus to school each morning. After picking him up, the driver would go about a mile down the road and pick up his neighbor Sarah. One day, in the dead of winter, Sarah was sick and her mother decided to keep her home, calling the bus driver and telling him not to stop at her house. After picking up Josh that morning, the driver continued on past Sarah's house.
Triggered by the change in routine, Josh jumped out of his seat, ran up to the driver and bit him on the collarbone. Shocked and frightened, the driver jerked the wheel and drove the bus into a ditch, damaging the vehicle and causing injuries to the children.
Though the names have been changed, this is a true story told by a parent to autism specialist Roger Cox during a training session he was teaching. "Children with autism often memorize the route. When changes happen, children can get upset. And this confuses the driver, who is back on the original route one block later. But for the kids with autism, it's not the regular route anymore. Now it's all wrong," explains Cox, professor of psychiatry and director of training for North Carolina's TEACCH, a program aimed at improving life for people with autism.
Josh's story, unfortunately, is not unique. "We've had drivers punched, kicked, bitten, spit on, shoved, cussed at and anything else you can think of," says Joe Reed, assistant transportation director for the School District of Palm Beach County in West Palm Beach, Fla.
Though incidents arise with regular-education and special-needs students alike, operators address incidents with these two groups differently. Many don't know their rights when it comes to disciplining a special-needs student. And drivers are often afraid to speak out because they think the occasional biting or hair-pulling is par for the course on a special-needs bus. "These drivers love their routes and seem to see the occasional injury as part of their job Ã?Â¢?? a challenge to prevent such behavior in the future," says John Farr, transportation director for Oceanside (Calif.) Unified School District.
But not all drivers are willing to expose themselves to risk every day and they shouldn't have to. "No one expects you to put your life or the lives of other passengers at unnecessary risk to transport one student," says Jason Paul, manager of Lamers Bus Lines in Green Bay, Wis.
Here are some strategies experts nationwide offer for better management of special-needs students and increased protection of drivers and aides who work with them.
Alleviate boredom on bus
Boredom is a key trigger for students with special needs. Though a driver can't be expected to turn her bus into a mobile classroom by teaching lessons while she drives, there are some things she can do to keep students' minds and bodies occupied, thereby reducing the likelihood that they will act out.
"Give them something to do while they're on the bus," advises Jocelyn Taylor, education specialist for the Utah State Office of Education in Salt Lake City. Students with autism, such as Josh, might benefit from a picture schedule of the bus stops affixed to the back of the seat in front of them. "That would help the children follow the progress of the bus," she says, which will often help calm special-needs students, particularly those with autism, who are focused on routine.
Also important, says Taylor, is to consider what kind of music you're playing on the bus and what other noises, smells and sensory elements might be affecting students. "I knew one child who would calm down with classical music, particularly Phantom of the Opera," she says.
Ask yourself what you can do to alleviate the boredom of all of your riders. "Some of mine have earphones and listen to music or stories. And I always have books, soft toys and hand-held games on the bus for rewards or diversions," says Debbie Moore, a driver for Gwinnett County (Ga.) Public Schools.
A New Jersey driver says she gives her students notes or gold stars when they are good riders. "Kids like getting stickers and signs showing "great job" and "caught being good," she says.
Get critical student info
If Josh's driver had been informed that Josh needed to be aware of any changes in the daily routine, his violent outburst could likely have been prevented. "If you understand autism, you understand how frightening and upsetting that [change in schedule] could be," says Cox. Students with autism or other special needs are not completely unpredictable, and steps can be taken to reduce the likelihood of an inappropriate reaction. But it all starts with getting key information on each student's special needs.
Getting information on special-needs students is not easily done, due to confidentiality laws that protect students' privacy. However, school bus drivers are professionals who need to know this information to protect the child and those around him or her. "The big risk that everyone is worried about is, 'What if the information leaks out?'" says Peggy Burns, staff counsel for Adams Twelve Five-Star Schools in Northglenn, Colo. "But the risks of sharing are so incredibly less than the potential for liability from failure to share," she says. "Transportation directors and managers must know the kinds of students they're dealing with and be in a position to obtain appropriate training for their drivers." Burns has made a training video on this topic: "Confidential Records: Training for School Bus Drivers," available through the Pupil Transportation Safety Institute at www.ptsi.org.
An effective way to gain information on a child is to communicate with the student's teachers and parents. "There's a team for each child, and that team should be tapped into. I would go to that team and ask for help," advises Taylor. If you're unable to attend all riders' IEP meetings, she suggests drafting a letter to the child's team, saying something like: "This child rides my bus. Do you have any suggestions for how this child could occupy his time while he's on the bus?" Solicit assistance from the educators and the parents, who spend more time with the child and know him well. "Don't reinvent the wheel. If there are really wonderful things that already work for this child, find out what they are," says Taylor.
Burns warns, however, not to assume that classroom management strategies will work on the bus. "Districts have to remember that if the issue is bus behavior, you have to evaluate it on the bus," she says. Transportation directors should ride the bus and observe students with behavior problems to evaluate management strategies.
Another option is to bring the classroom to the bus by having a classroom aide who works with that specific child ride the bus and help solve the problem. "Have the transportation department pay the instructional assistants for service over and above their regular salary or daily rate," suggests Ray Turner, special-needs transportation coordinator at Northside Independent School District in San Antonio.
Learn intervention tactics
Despite all of these preventive measures, violent or otherwise inappropriate incidents may still occur. That's when more aggressive measures need to be taken. Though the use of safety vests is currently a point of contention in the industry, many operators admit to using them to control student behavior Ã?Â¢?? for the student's own safety as well as the safety of those around him. "A vest or similar product requires parental permission and IEP committee documentation for a form of restraint beyond a seat belt. Have the child use the vest when he boards the bus at school and at home," says Turner.
Also key is keeping a student's ride time as short as possible. In some cases, a student may need to be re-routed or ride on his own bus in order to reduce ride time. This reduces the risk the violent student poses to other riders, while also reducing the likelihood of other students triggering the violent student to act out.
"The law does not require transportation to be provided in a yellow school bus," explains James Kraemer, director of www.2safeschools.org. "Transportation can be provided by taxi, local law enforcement or even mileage paid to parents to transport their own child."
In the event that a violent episode does erupt, drivers need to be trained to deal with it. Organizations like the Crisis Prevention Institute (CPI) in Brookfield, Wis., offer courses in non-violent crisis intervention. The company conducts on-site programs tailored specifically to school bus drivers and has a two-volume school bus driver training video series on preventing and managing problem behavior on the bus (available for purchase at www.crisisprevention.com). CPI's program includes a lesson in physical restraint techniques. "Even in places where they say you cannot lay hands on kids, if someone tries to hurt you or someone else, you can stop them," explains Jerilyn Dufresne, spokesperson for CPI. "That's what our training is about, using all other resources first."
"Using CPI techniques to restrain is a legally 'safe' procedure when students are acting out severely," says Turner. He notes that any time a restraint technique is used, the incident should be documented. CPI also produces training videos on how to properly document incidents.
Know your legal rights
Documentation, say the experts, is the key to protecting yourself from legal complications. "I keep a daily log book. Because it is something that I do daily, my attorney has told me that it is as good as a sworn affidavit if I ever end up in court," says Moore. Also important is to keep a copy of all documentation, including referrals, that you send in to school administration.
In addition to serving as a legal protection for the driver, documentation can provide evidence that a problematic student needs an interim alternative placement, which means removal from the student's current educational setting for up to 45 days. Such a placement will only be granted with the help of an impartial hearing officer after all other avenues have been explored, as evidenced through documentation. "You can make a case if you have written documentation (video would be even better) that the student is interfering with your ability to drive the bus safely," says Paul.
The concept that special-needs students cannot be removed from the bus is a myth. Even if misbehavior is a result of a child's special needs, he can be removed from the bus if he is jeopardizing the safety of employees or students. A special-needs student with transportation included in his IEP can be suspended from the bus for up to 10 days in a year. Beyond that, you must make arrangements for alternate transportation - not necessarily by school bus. A student who does not have transportation included in his IEP can be suspended from the bus for more than 10 days.
Recent court cases prove employers should take employee complaints of violence in the workplace seriously. Despite government immunity and worker's compensation laws, the courts heard two recent cases in which employees sued school districts for knowingly placing them in a dangerous work environment. "This puts the employer in a situation of tremendous vulnerability," says Burns.
Employees are often afraid to express their concerns because they fear retaliation from their employers. "That kind of complaint by a driver is really an exercise of First Amendment rights, and if you take adverse employment action against someone - fire them, demote them, lessen their pay - in response to an exercise of constitutionally protected rights, you are impermissibly retaliating, and that's simply against the law," says Burns.