Check Up

Photo: Victoria DeCarlo

Checking for students after a bus ride is an ongoing issue that garnered national attention in September after the tragic death of Hun Joon “Paul” Lee, a 19-year-old autistic student in Whittier, California. Lee died after being left behind on a school bus at the end of its route. He remained inside that bus for several hours during a heat wave until his body was discovered. As a result of this tragedy, many transportation operations, including the Pupil Transportation Cooperative, which operated the bus Lee rode, have re-evaluated and reformed their policies and procedures for driver post-trip inspections for students.

Debbie LaJoie, director of the Pupil Transportation Cooperative, told STN that at this writing, the company was requesting proposals from providers of child reminder technology solutions. Along with technological additions, the operation also implemented a multi-step “double child safety check” procedure.

The first step involves a staff member documenting all the buses left in the yard each morning. When buses return, employees will be waiting to document the bus numbers. One employee will walk the bus front to back, while another will open the emergency exits and check under the seats. Afterwards, each will sign a form confirming that they checked the entire bus.

The student transportation industry has many options available in the form of products that can help prevent incidents of children left behind on the school bus. Child Check-Mate, perhaps one of the most well-known systems, reminds drivers to look for lingering or sleeping children after a route by sounding an alarm. The alarm must be deactivated at the rear of the bus. As drivers walk down the aisle, they are supposed to check under and around each seat to ensure there are no remaining students or other items such as forgotten backpacks. IC Bus also offers a similar system called No Student Left Behind. An alarm sounds when the school bus driver completes the route and turns off the bus. This requires the school bus driver to walk to the back of the bus where they can reset the alarm, looking under each seat as they go along.

“It really forces them to make sure there’s no child left behind,” said Trish Reed, company vice president and general manager.

In a recent security survey of transportation directors conducted by School Transportation News, approximately 65 percent of 262 respondents indicated that they use these types of electronic systems in their operations.

But the technology available to prevent students from being left behind on the bus goes beyond alarm systems. The Antelope Valley Schools Transportation Agency in Southern California recently conducted a pilot program to test the effectiveness of biometric scanner technology, specifically iris scanners, on their special needs routes. Morris Fuselier, CEO at Antelope Valley, explained that a tablet is loaded with software the captures the enrollment of a bus. The iris scanner is trained to recognize the students. Once it’s been trained, the student looks into a binocular device. It reads their iris and checks them in.

“It’s a pretty simple device,” he added. “At the end of loading, drivers hit a button on tablet and it shows who is there and who is not. Parents are notified via text message each time their child is scanned upon boarding and leaving the bus.”

However, the use of biometric scanners is controversial, with opponents citing privacy concerns. In May 2014, Florida Gov. Rick Scott banned the collection of biometric information from students, becoming the first state in the nation to do so.  

Still, Fuselier says that the feedback from parents has been positive, and that the system has alternative options for those who are not comfortable with the idea of iris scans, or for students whose special needs would make it difficult to collect the information that way. The driver can manually check these students in on the tablet.

“We have some students that rarely open their eyes, so to get them to look into a binocular is impossible. We have some autistic students that have issues with anything being close to their face. So we can manually enter those as they get on the bus. With special needs, you have to have options,” he said.

In the event of a security breach, he added that the students’ information would be protected in a way that it may be rendered useless by potential hackers.

“The data is stored in a way that displays as a lot of numbers and letters. If someone accessed it, it wouldn’t provide much of anything. The tablets don’t hold much data, just hold the program,” Fuselier said.

There are also different systems and procedures that transporters use that don’t necessarily involve technology. Many use different types of visual aids, ranging from posters and hiding objects during training sessions to condition drivers to make a habit of of double-checking.

Last September, the New Jersey Department of Children and Families created 17.5 inch by 4.5 inch signs to be displayed on school buses that remind drivers to check for children. DCF partnered with both the School Transportation Supervisors of New Jersey and the New Jersey School Bus Contractors Association to distribute the signs, which are available free of charge to in-state operations.

“This is a simple but important way of reminding drivers to thoroughly inspect their bus for remaining children,” said Ray Kuehner, president of STSNJ.

The DCF investigated 56 incidents where children were left on school buses or other transportation vehicles in 2014. In some cases, the students were trapped for hours, and those who managed to escape were found wandering in the bus’ vicinity.

“The signs reinforce the training bus drivers receive about the importance of post-trip inspections,” said Mark Jordan, director of operations for school bus contractor Student Transportation of America’s northern New Jersey contracts. “No child should ever be left alone on a bus and these signs will help prevent it from happening.”

Districts across the country also employ simple yet effective steps to visually remind drivers and to perform a check, and to indicate that a check was done.

“Every bus is equipped with a broom. It is stored at the front of the bus during the route. The driver places the broom upright at the rear of the bus before exiting (after a route) as a sign of ‘sweep and check,’” Sam Bailey, director of transportation at Biloxi Public Schools in Mississippi stated in the recent STN security survey.

Peggy Morgan, transportation coordinator at CAS/Morgan County Head Start in Tennessee reported in the same  survey that her operation requires employees who were not on a route to perform the inspection after each trip.

Checking the bus should not only be done inside the bus after a route, but also around the danger zone before departing on a route. Victoria DeCarlo, a school bus driver at Lake Shore Central School District in Angola, New York developed a tool called the “Can You See Me?” arm, which is designed to help in training drivers to check inside and around the bus. DeCarlo, who is also the creator of the STEFFI Crossing Enhancer, said she was inspired to create the arms during a refresher training session on the usage of bus mirrors. She said she figured that it would be a good idea to hide objects that resembled children’s arms around the bus’ danger zone to see if drivers would catch them, and to get them into the habit of checking for what not may be instantly obvious.

“I thought ‘why don’t we just put something like an arm, like if a kid went under a bus and the arm is sticking out?’ We should be able to see that. If you don’t, you glanced too quickly in your mirror and you missed it,” she explained. “If we take our time and scan the mirrors like we should, we’re going to be seeing small details, like a hand or arm around the tires or anywhere on the bus.”

DeCarlo added that that the arms can also be hidden inside the bus to make sure that drivers are doing thorough post-trip inspections.

The issue of the bus’ danger zone also took a tragic turn last October with the death of five-year-old Bissiah Hedges in Alabama. The kindergartener was run over by the school bus after his book bag reportedly got caught in the bus’ crossing gate and he tried to pick up a few items that fell out. According to news reports, the driver, who did not see Bissiah when his bag got caught, told authorities she assumed he was not coming to school that day after seeing his siblings board without him.

DeCarlo said that the tragedy can be used as a lesson for both students and drivers. She recalled printing out a photo of Bissiah after reading his story and showing it to her students. DeCarlo told them about what happened and added personal details that she had learned about the boy in news reports, such as the fact that he enjoyed karate.

“I said those things to make him real to my students,” she said. “I said, ‘I do not want this to happen to you,’ told them about the backpack. Even if your parent is telling you to go after the bus because you’re running late, tell them it’s okay because the driver is going to wait. When I see you in the doorway, I’m going to wait.”