In the last several years, many school districts have worked to create an atmosphere promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). This is also important on the yellow school bus — both for students, and for the pupil transportation employees who drive the bus and maintain it.
This was Kim Martin’s message at the 2023 School Bus Fleet ConneX event. Martin is an industry engagement consultant for Tyler Technologies. She previously served in various capacities with local school districts in the Chicagoland area, including as a transportation director and school bus driver.
What is DEI?
Though you may be hearing the phrase more now, DEI is not new.
The movement to promote DEI began with the 1960s civil rights movement and has grown to include gender, sexual orientation, religion, country of origin, and other identities, according to a Glossary of Definitions and Core Concepts for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion created for an advisory group convened by AcademyHealth.
While the early days of DEI focused more on tolerance — or acceptance — of integration and multiculturalism, DEI has now shifted to have more of an emphasis on inclusion and equality.
You may see some people refer to this as DEIB, with the ‘B’ standing for belonging. According to ChartHop, DEI is the formula to create the desired result of belonging.
Why Does it Matter?
In students, this is important because every pupil transportation employee wants their students to feel safe and accepted in their school environment.
In employees, the same is true. Creating a workplace that promotes DEI can also have a positive impact on employee retention.
DEI is a term that may cause some to react negatively. This initial reluctance, Martin believes, stems from a lack of familiarity with the subject.
This is why Martin works hard to teach people in the industry about DEI.
“My goal is to empower individuals to engage in meaningful conversations about DEI confidently,” Martin said. “I want to alleviate any nervousness or apprehension surrounding the topic by equipping people with the knowledge and tools to discuss it openly and constructively.”
For those tasked with educating their staff on the subject, Martin’s advice is to provide clear, concise explanations of what DEI represents, as well as the potential benefits.
“It's important to emphasize that DEI aims to create a level playing field for everyone, promoting fairness and equal opportunities for all individuals. Emphasizing the positive outcomes of diversity, equity, and inclusion, such as improved innovation and productivity, can help alleviate these concerns,” Martin explained.
DEI for Pupil Transportation Employees
DEI in the workplace — particularly for pupil transportation departments — is important because it affects employees’ attitudes. Employees who feel accepted are more likely to have a positive outlook in the workplace. One person’s attitude can have a domino effect. For example, if a bus driver is in a bad mood, their students are likely to sense that and also be in a bad mood.
DEI can also affect workflow. A sense of belonging can lead employees to work harder because they feel valued for who they are, and as a result, valued for the work they do.
When an employee feels that DEI is not being supported among their colleagues, it’s important to make sure they know they can report this to you as the transportation director.
“[Do our employees] know where to go if they have a concern?” Martin asked. “We want to kind of create that [environment where] everybody's comfortable to maybe ask a question, or say ‘Can I talk about this? Because I want to learn some more.’”
It’s important to note that this open-door policy for transportation directors refers to creating a space for conversations about creating an atmosphere of equality, not complaints of things like sexual harassment. There is a point where human resources must get involved.
Martin explained that she had a transportation director* who was told by their school board that their staff was not diverse enough.
“What can I even do about this?” he asked Martin.
She suggested he start by making some changes to the job application that could lead to certain biases in the hiring process, like the name and birthdate. A name can reveal an applicant’s race, and their birthdate can obviously lead to age bias. These details can be filled in by human resources once an applicant has reached the next step in the hiring process.
When Martin was working for a contractor in the Chicagoland area for a few years, management found out that some of the drivers took two or three buses just to get to work so they could drive their own school bus. Lack of easy and affordable access to the workplace can be a barrier for people. The contractor decided that when drivers are trainees, they would arrange transportation for all of their physicals, CDL tests, and any other testing required for the job.
One SBFX attendee mentioned that in New York City, their organization has a weekly newsletter of sorts. Because of the high amount of cultural diversity in the city, the organization sends the newsletter in five different languages to ensure all employees can read it.
Another attendee said that their department puts on celebrations for various holidays and events with cultural significance. This sends a message to employees that they are welcome no matter what their religion or cultural background is.
Martin recommended creating an advisory committee made up of a diverse group of employees who can provide input on the mood of the workplace and discuss ways to create a better work environment. But in doing this, it’s also important to rotate the members so different viewpoints can be represented over time.
“We want to make sure that we rotate the individuals so that we’re aware of any issues. And of course, every employee loves to be listened to,” Martin said.
DEI Among Students
School bus drivers and aides only spend so much time with students, but every minute they spend with students is valuable, Martin said.
Martin suggested coordinating with other staff members who the students are involved with during the school day when necessary.
This can look like making sure a student’s IEP is being followed. In one example, Martin said she had a school bus driver with a few special needs students on their route. The loading process took a long time for one student, so the driver began lifting the student up to put her in her seat. While the driver was trying to help, it was having the opposite effect on the student’s ongoing physical therapy. The solution? Adjusting the route to give that student more time to load and unload the bus.
In another case, Martin had a student with autism on her route who was easily agitated. In a discussion with teachers, Martin learned the student calms down when they can rip paper. Allowing that child to rip paper during their commute made a huge difference.
“You know what? I don’t mind sweeping the bus. Rip paper all the way home. He’s comfortable and he’s enjoying his experience,” Martin said. “If I didn't speak to the teacher, I wouldn't have ever known” Martin said.
In one school district, Martin shared that bus drivers approached their transportation director saying they were having trouble communicating with students who didn’t speak English. The drivers ended up working alongside the school district’s foreign language teachers to put together a guide of key phrases they could use.
Just like being willing to have an open dialogue with employees through an advisory committee is a good practice for employers, having an open dialogue with the community is also a good practice. This can allow community members to share feedback on their child’s bus environment or about what is going on in the community that might have an effect on the atmosphere inside the school bus.
Similarly, this open channel of communication can allow the transportation department to share different things like information about new student tracking technology or route changes with their communities.
Creating that dialogue can be helpful for people on all sides.
Paying attention to DEI can help pupil transportation operations be more inclusive to the public they serve.
Learn About Your Employees and Passengers
In a nutshell, these are Martin’s top reasons why it is critical to focus on DEI:
- Ethical Responsibility - Upholding principles of fairness, equity, and inclusion is not just a matter of business success; it's a moral obligation.
- Legal Compliance - Many regions have regulations in place that require organizations to address diversity, equity, and inclusion.
- Talent Attraction and Retention - Inclusive organizations are more likely to attract and retain top talent. People want to work for companies that value and respect their individuality.
- Innovation and Creativity - Embracing different viewpoints can lead to better problem-solving and more innovative solutions.
At the end of the day, DEI is simple, as long as pupil transportation departments are willing to learn what it is that makes their employees and students feel safe.
“Be curious; learn about each other, celebrate each other. That's how everyone will feel more comfortable and trusted, and have that environment that's a lot more comfortable,” Martin said.
*Note: All examples Kim Martin shared were approved by all parties involved. She considers herself lucky to have worked with people willing to be vulnerable like her for the greater good.