Teresa Hartley’s experience with school bus evacuations dates back to when she was in middle school.
Hartley, now the transportation director for Iowa’s Mid-Prairie Community School District, was riding a school bus one morning in seventh grade when a car ran a stop sign and barreled into the side of the bus by the passenger door. The impact pushed the bus into a ditch, and it toppled onto its side.
Hartley, who was 13 or 14 at the time, was better prepared to handle the situation than the average student. Her mom was a school bus driver, so Hartley had spent much time around the yellow vehicles and knew, for example, how to use the two-way radio and the emergency exits.
That knowledge proved vital after the crash, when Hartley saw that the school bus driver (not her mom in this case) was initially unresponsive. The middle schooler grabbed the radio and called dispatch about the accident. Then she shepherded the other students out of the bus through an emergency exit.
While the young Hartley clearly handled the situation well, the experience was unsettling and has stayed with her over the years.
“It was traumatic,” Hartley says. “It’s something you’ll never forget.”
Now, during her first year as a transportation director, Hartley launched a district-wide training program to ensure that all students are prepared — as she was in her youth — to respond to a school bus emergency.
New Role, New Goal
Mid-Prairie Community School District is based in Wellman, an eastern Iowa town of about 1,400 people. Hartley has worked for the rural district for 16 years, initially in a student behavior position.
After about 10 years, she took on an additional role as a part-time secretary for the transportation director. When that director resigned at the end of the 2016-17 school year, Hartley applied for the job and got it.
While she had grown up around school buses, transportation department management was a new realm for Hartley. Over the summer of 2017, she attended a training session for new directors, conducted by state pupil transportation director Max Christensen of the Iowa Department of Education (DOE).
“One of the things I talk about is making sure all students participate [in evacuation training] and not just the route kids,” Christensen says.
Before then, Mid-Prairie Community School District’s evacuation drills had been limited to regular route riders, so Hartley took Christensen’s message to heart and then took action. During her first school year as transportation director, Hartley began talking to Joe Funk, a school bus inspector with the Iowa DOE, about how to expand her district’s evacuation training.
The urgency of the issue was reinforced in December, when a student and a driver died in a school bus fire on the other side of the state, near Oakland, Iowa.
“That got me thinking, ‘This is serious,’” Hartley says. “Kids really need to know anything they can about the bus and how to get out of it.”
Mid-Prairie Community School District encompasses two elementary schools, one middle school, and one high school, with a total enrollment of about 1,700 students.
In Iowa, school districts are required to conduct school bus evacuation drills twice per year. For Mid-Prairie Community School District’s drills this spring, Hartley made big plans.
The key change, prompted by Christensen’s point at the new director training, was to incorporate all of the district’s students in the training, rather than just those who regularly ride the bus. To further promote the importance of the event, Hartley invited some special guests and notified local media.
On May 23, Mid-Prairie Community School District held its first all-school bus evacuation drill program. On hand to help were state director Christensen, Funk and the DOE’s two other school bus inspectors, and five troopers from the Iowa State Patrol.
The evacuation drills were staged at each of the district’s four school buildings, with about 1,500 students from pre-K through 11th grade taking part. (The high school seniors had already graduated at that point.) Both regular-education and special-needs students were included.
Christensen and other officials led the training, showing students and teachers how to use all of the exits on the bus. That included identifying the emergency air pressure release to open the front service door, how to use the window exits, sitting and “scooting” out the rear emergency exit door, and how to pop open the roof hatches. For the latter part, even the smaller students had their turns — they were allowed to climb up on the seats so they could reach the roof hatch.
“They had to learn to do it themselves,” Hartley says, noting that in some emergency situations, “there’s not going to be an adult there to help them.”
Beyond Bus Routes
In Iowa last year, school buses logged nearly 42 million miles on route service, plus another 15 million miles for field trips, sports, and other activities. It’s on those non-route trips when the need for evacuation preparedness broadens to more students.
“So often in our industry, the focus is on bus routes and route students,” Christensen says. “And while our prime mission is getting students back and forth from home to school, we don’t want to forget how many activity and field trips we all perform, and those students and their safety while on the bus is just as important as it is to the route students.”
Hartley notes that the expanded evacuation training program was a learning experience not only for students and teachers, but for her and her staff as well.
“Everybody embraced this day, and everybody had something positive to say,” Hartley says. “They would tell me they learned something — ‘I didn’t know this.’”
Mid-Prairie Community School District has 14 school bus drivers, four van and car route drivers, and several substitutes. All of them were involved in the evacuation training day.
Hartley says that while the district’s future school bus evacuation drills won’t necessarily be such big productions — i.e., bringing in the DOE team, Iowa State Patrol troopers, and the media — the all-school, all-student format will be the new standard.
“We will do the same thing here twice a year, just not as extreme,” Hartley says. “From now on, all students — that’s all it is.”
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