Mike LaRocco says that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought unprecedented challenges to the education community, and that they “are even more pressing for the school transportation community.” - Photo courtesy Mike LaRocco

Mike LaRocco says that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought unprecedented challenges to the education community, and that they “are even more pressing for the school transportation community.”

Photo courtesy Mike LaRocco

Initially hired as an assistant transportation director at an Indiana school district in part for computer skills he gained in the military, Mike LaRocco quickly moved up to the director position and continued to take on leadership roles in pupil transportation, including his current one as president of the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services (NASDPTS).

In this interview with School Bus Fleet, LaRocco discusses the association’s position on lap-shoulder belts on buses, partnering with other industry associations to address regulations for school reopening, and how much pupil transporters contribute to their communities.

1. How did you get your start in pupil transportation?

You could say it was destiny, but really it was dumb luck. Upon returning to the Indianapolis area after eight years in the U.S. Army, my wife was offered an elementary teaching position at Hamilton Southeastern Schools in Fishers, Ind. The district was also looking for an assistant transportation director with computer skills to implement their new electronic routing system. I had spent my last four years in the Army as a computer programmer and in software support — the first four years were in tanks where I was frequently allowed to blow something up or run something over —  so I applied for the position and was hired on November 1, 1993.

After about six months, I was moved to the director position when the previous director retired, and I have been in school transportation ever since, rising to the position of director of transportation for the Indiana Department of Education.

2. NASDPTS just released a new position paper on seat belts. What updates stand out compared to the association’s 2014 position paper on the topic?

The biggest change is that NASDPTS is unequivocal about recommending the “required installation and use of lap-shoulder belts in new school buses.” We believe that lap-shoulder belts greatly enhance the benefits of compartmentalization in all crash scenarios and thus should be mandated on all new school buses.

3. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released in April its final report on the fatal crash in Rochester, Ind. in 2018. The agency issued several recommendations, including four to NASDPTS. What actions has NASDPTS taken in response?

NASDPTS has already shared with its members the NTSB’s final report on the Rochester, Ind; Baldwyn, Miss.; and Hartsfield, Ga. crashes, and emphasized the recommendations directly related to state directors.

As to the recommendations related to bus driver training, NASDPTS published a position paper in May 2018 on driver licensing, qualifications, and training mainly centered around safe bus stop practices and procedures.

We have also partnered with the National Association for Pupil Transportation (NAPT) and the National School Transportation Association (NSTA) to lend our voice to federal legislation that would further enhance school bus safety, some of which relates directly to many of the recent fatal school bus crashes (e.g. electronic stability control, emergency braking systems, lane departure warning systems, etc.).

4. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has released recommendations for social distancing on school buses. What are your thoughts on those recommendations?

NASDPTS has partnered with NAPT and NSTA to create the Student Transportation Aligned for Return to School (STARTS) Task Force to address COVID-19 recommendations specific to school transportation as created by professionals across the spectrum directly involved in school transportation. Those guidelines will be specific to the needs of school bus operations.

The COVID-19 pandemic has presented unprecedented challenges to the education community. When you consider that school transportation is critical to our children accessing educational opportunities, those challenges are even more pressing for the school transportation community. The CDC guidelines provide a framework for the return to school, but it is only a framework, and many of the recommendations, while possibly feasible, may be unrealistic in an educational environment. For now, we are looking forward to STARTS completing its initial work.

5. What do you wish people outside the world of pupil transportation knew about it?

First and foremost, that the individuals who provide school transportation services for your district or schools are part of the community; they are not just someone doing a job. Most live in the community they serve; they have, or have had, children going to the same schools as children of the parents for whom they provide service. They pay taxes to that same school board — they help pay their own salaries. They volunteer in those same schools and around their communities. They are part your local fabric. Please give them the same respect that you expect as a community member.

Finally, for all motorists: that red, eight-sided sign that reads “Stop” is not a suggestion!

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