SALINA, Kan. — On June 11, the Kansas State Pupil Transportation Association (KSPTA) held its inaugural Special Needs Team Safety Competition here.
The event was two years in the making. Upon joining the board of the KSPTA, South Central Vice President Rick Smith began garnering support for a special-needs safety competition, with his efforts coming to fruition this year.
Members of the event’s eight competing teams hailed from Shawnee Heights Unified School District (USD) #450, Great Bend USD #428, Emporia USD #253, Seaman USD #345, Wichita Public Schools and Goddard School District #265. The competition was sponsored by Q’Straint and Sure-Lok.
The winners were Cheri Milam and Forrest Petersen from Emporia USD #253.
Smith, in an interview with SBF, said he was inspired to put together a special-needs roadeo by Wichita Public Schools Special-Needs Transportation Coordinator Frieda Noller, a former colleague. (Smith currently works as transportation director at Valley Center Public Schools USD #262.)
“I learned so much [from her] — not just the proper ways of doing things and how to work with students, but I learned the compassion side and the empathy side,” he said. “I wanted to do something to pay her back … what better way than to start something that isn't being done currently in our state and is geared toward something that she has a passion for — and that's special needs.”
The competition, which was modeled after national safety roadeos, included segments on wheelchair loading and securement, managing challenging behaviors and emergency evacuations. Association members acted as students in the events, and coordinators strove to make scenarios as realistic as possible.
In the emergency evacuation event, participating drivers and aides had to cope with a scenario in which a vehicle strikes the bus from behind, blocking the back exit and filling the bus with smoke.
“All of those drivers, when they entered the competition, knew the profiles of the students and we anticipated them having a plan when they arrived on how they were going to evacuate the students,” Smith explained. “But the very first thing my student actor did when that event started was jump up and start screaming.
“Every driver and aide commented on that because it was so real — it just felt real. And their hearts started beating and they started sweating and they forgot about their plan. That’s exactly what that was designed to do.”
Smith said the competition was a resounding success, and that he and the event organizers received great input from participants at a debriefing meeting after the event.
Smith anticipates that the event will grow each year as participants go back to their operations to share their experiences. He also hopes to bring in educators next year to cover such topics as managing students with autism on the bus.
“Ultimately, we want to have a multi-day conference on special needs here for the state of Kansas,” he said.
For Smith, the goal of providing safety and great transportation to students with special needs is becoming personal. When SBF spoke with him about the competition, he was at a hospital with his grandson, who is undergoing treatment for a cognitive heart condition.
Smith said he and his family just learned there is also a possibility his grandson has autism.
“I'm becoming more attuned to the special-needs community,” he said. “If my grandson makes it through all of this, I'll be more aware and more attuned to his needs and his rights. I think it was meant to be.”
Below is a video from the KSPTA's Special Needs Team Safety Competition.