In early December, a student with autism was supposed to be dropped off at a school bus stop in Silver Spring, Maryland, but instead was transported to a stop in Baltimore, about 30 miles away. Police said they received a call from the student’s parents reporting that their son was missing. The Maryland district, which worked with police to locate the bus and the student, said that it was unclear whether the student, who is nearly non-verbal, did not depart from the bus at the time of his stop or if the substitute bus driver failed to make the stop. Police later found the student safely on board the bus, and returned him home almost six hours after afternoon dismissal.
While the remaining details of the case have yet to be released, this incident serves as a reminder of the fact that transportation personnel play a key role in the initial planning and development of a student’s individualized education program (IEP).
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which outlines transportation as a related service, requires that transportation staff be informed of a students’ needs during the IEP process on a case-by-case basis.
While it may not be ideal for transportation staff to be involved in every step of the process, it is essential for them to communicate with parents and other related service staff to acquire any and all information that may directly impact a student’s safe travel to and from school.
Establish Clear Criteria
One way to ensure the transportation department’s involvement in the IEP is to create guidelines for when and how staff members are involved. These guidelines can ultimately help transportation directors better communicate the needs of drivers and aides with the rest of the IEP team.
Dr. Linda Bluth, a consultant for transportation matters for students with disabilities at the Maryland Department of Education’s division of early intervention and special education services, says there are two cases in which transportation personnel should be present in the IEP process.
The first, Bluth notes, is when a student requires specialized transportation services, and the second is when a student requires a bus with specialized equipment and a trained driver and/or aide on board to meet their needs.
“If a disability affects the school bus ride, you want to know about it prior to transportation,” Bluth, who is also a past president of the National Association for Pupil Transportation (NAPT), says. “You should have written criteria for when you need someone at the [IEP] meeting and when you don’t.”
The written criteria may also highlight what information pertaining to a student’s disability may be useful for drivers, aides, and substitute staff to know, such as a student’s health care, medical, physical, or behavioral needs.
For example, if a student requires an amended schedule, that information needs to be outlined for the transportation department, Therese Pelicano, the special-needs transportation manager for Frederick County (Md.) Public Schools, says.
“We can’t always guarantee a ride home for one student in a certain timeframe,” Pelicano explains. “But we can be there at the initial IEP meeting to educate school-based personnel and parents so they can have an understanding of what [transportation] looks like and what will occur.”
Communication is Paramount
Part of building that relationship with related service staff and parents, Pelicano says, is being able to maintain constant, open communication not only during the initial IEP meeting, but also during check-ins, and any time thereafter. For instance, the director of transportation may hold conference calls with parents, drivers, and school administrators to discuss any immediate changes to the student’s IEP.
“When they are in a case conference with an incoming student, [the special-education department] will contact me about any information that a driver and monitor needs to know,” says Martha Allen, the assistant director of transportation and special services coordinator for Metropolitan School District (MSD) of Wayne Township (Ind.).
“I have built such a good relationship with the special services department and school staff to where I don’t need to attend every IEP meeting,” Allen, who has worked at her district for over 27 years, says.
For districts who may not have a special services transportation coordinator, Allen, who is also the vice president and co-chair of the special-needs committee for the School Transportation of Indiana, recommends that drivers and bus monitors put in extra effort in contacting school nurses, physical therapists, psychologists, or other staff members who may interact with the student on a daily basis.
In addition to building connections with related service staff members, drivers and aides should establish meaningful relationships with the parents of the students they transport. That increased communication not only improves the confidence parents have in drivers while transporting their child, but it also allows drivers to do their job more effectively.
At Frederick County, Pelicano says, the district’s bus aides communicate via text with parents if a bus breaks down, is running late, or if a student has a behavioral issue while on the bus.
“It’s important that drivers and aides feel comfortable talking directly to the parent if something inappropriate happens or even if the child does something great on their ride,” Pelicano explains.
Allen notes a similar approach in parent-driver communication at her district: she requires all of her drivers to call and introduce themselves to parents, and directly ask them about their child’s needs.
“When you make the effort to contact or reach out to parents and your special services department,” Allen says, “you’re really trying to build that bridge.”
While communication may be essential to getting involved in the IEP process, transportation personnel should also be aware of the state and federal laws and district-specific policies and procedures governing special-needs transportation.
The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) requires parental consent to disclose student information under certain conditions. One of those conditions is if the disclosure of the information is to other school officials, including teachers, who have a “legitimate educational interest.”
The IDEA recognizes the confidentiality requirements of FERPA and how they directly apply to school district employees, including transportation staff. However, in order for transportation staff to receive student information — like all other personnel — they must receive training on the state’s confidentiality policies and procedures.
Cheryl Wolf, a special-needs transportation consultant, says before she retired from her post as special-needs transportation manager for Lafayette (Ind.) School Corp. in 2011, the district would require annual confidentiality training.
“That is something that we had to put out to drivers and attendants,” Wolf recalls, “For them to not divulge any of this information that they have been given during the IEP process to anyone that is not part of the related service.”
Pelicano adds that confidentiality training enhances drivers’ coordination and communication with other related service staff.
“If a student requires administration of medication by the bus staff in an emergency situation, drivers can be trained on how to do that after meeting with a school nurse,” Pelicano says. “It’s critical to have that coordination because if the bus staff wasn’t aware of their condition, it could potentially put the student in a life-threatening situation.”
Utilizing Additional Resources
Above all, Allen recommends that drivers and bus monitors take advantage of special-needs transportation resources outside of the IEP process. These include national and state conferences and training courses, and publications that cover how to ensure the safe travel of students with disabilities.
Bluth, who is the author of the NAPT’s 5th edition of Transporting Students with Disabilities (2014), says that transportation departments should utilize the guidelines and definitions outlined in the book to better navigate the IEP process.
“We do take a lot of information from [the book] and use it for our pre-service classes for drivers, and as a reference for training,” Pelicano says.
In addition, Marisa Weisinger, the executive secretary for the Texas Association for Pupil Transportation (TAPT), says directors, drivers, and aides can also look to their state organizations for valuable IEP information.
Of the more than 60 professional development courses offered by the TAPT, Weisinger says that five times throughout the year the association offers courses related to special-needs transportation. The courses cover the basics of the IDEA, the state and federal laws for transporting students with disabilities, hands-on training, and the relationship between drivers and bus aides.
Despite the challenges of getting involved in the IEP, Wolf, who is also the chair of the School Transportation Association of Indiana’s special-needs committee, says that she has seen an increase in the amount of special-needs personnel attending national transportation conferences.
“They are coming to conferences to learn more about transportation, what they can and cannot do, and to understand the needs of transportation staff and vice versa,” Wolf explains.
“There’s a reason for this,” Weisinger says. “Transportation personnel can’t just sit back and wait to be invited to the IEP. They should take initiative to inquire about the IEP process, and build rapport … to ultimately ensure [that] the needs of the student and transportation department are met.”