Growing Hunger

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The special needs population is growing, and education for school bus personnel is working to catch up

Last year, a camera installed on a Texas school bus captured the driver allegedly choking a mentally challenged, bipolar student. The incident and comments from several transportation and special needs professionals suggests there is a hunger for special needs training for school bus drivers that is already being satiated in some places.

According to a local news report, the middle school student began acting out, shouting obscenities and moving about minutes after the bus pulled away from school. The district has 301 aides for nearly 4,000 students with special needs on 450 buses, but the aide normally assigned to the bus was unavailable that day, and the driver soon lost her patience.

The incident is extraordinary for its bleakness. But with more special needs students under school transportation’s care and less money under considerable budgetary constraints, this isolated incident demonstrates the importance of training for school bus drivers.

The large population of students with special needs is only growing. According to a report from the Education Research Center, in 1976, about eight percent of public school students ages 3 to 21 received special education services. Three decades later, nearly 14 percent of the population received those services.

Dona Beauchea, has seen this growth. In a transportation career that has spanned this same period, she has seen more students with special needs, more IDEA requirements and more complicated equipment. Beauchea, First Student’s new special needs and operational safety manager, says with all these changes, the need for special needs training is only going to increase.

“It’s only going to be more complicated as we move forward.”

Not only are there more special needs students, more often districts are mainstreaming these students, or placing them in the same environments as their general population peers. At California’s San Diego Unified School District, transportation is no exception.

“The trend should really be that ‘special’ transportation is the exception not the rule,” says Transportation Director Alexandra Robinson. “For years, districts like ours have had all students on all buses. Especially in this time of fiscal crisis, running two parallel fleet functions isn’t cost efficient.”

But a growing special needs population and a tendency to mainstream special needs students means drivers who might not have previously been exposed to children with special needs are going to be asked to serve these students.

A number of resources are available, including School Transportation News’ annual EXPO and EduPro Group’s special needs-focused Transporting Students with Disabilities & Preschoolers annual conference, publications and a number of consultants.

With travel restrictions, some greater efforts may need to be taken to bring the lessons of the national trade shows home.

Charley Kennington, director of transportation solutions for Texas’ Region IV Education Service Center, was so impressed by the lessons he learned at last year’s national disabilities conference and was so struck by how few Texas personnel were attending the conference that he decided to start the first state-level special needs conference. Even on short notice, many pupil transporters signed up for the conference, excited at the opportunity to learn without having to request out-of-state travel.

While average drivers often can’t attend even these local conferences, Kennington said he hopes that by reaching district-level leaders, including lead drivers and trainers, he can ensure that the most important information is spread around the state.

Many districts, including the Texas district where the choking incident occurred, incorporate special needs training into their in-service and pre-service trainings. But with more special needs students boarding the bus, districts may need to consider expanding this education. Theresa M. Anderson, central director of transportation at Jefferson County, Colo., Schools, says sensitivity training requires some special attention. She says recognizing each child’s challenges is an extension of pupil transporters essential aim of providing a safe ride to school that might be neglected without this training.

“There is so much we all face daily; getting caught up in numbers and costs. We can easily forget. Sensitivity training gives us the opportunity to re-ground or center ourselves again,” she notes.

But pupil transporters can’t shoulder this responsibility alone. Other elements of the special needs community must make room at their table for transportation to share information on each child’s mental and physical abilities so transportation can provide the safest and most efficient service possible.

“For so many years we were told, ‘You do not need to know that,’” Anderson says. “We continue to face struggles; however, collectively as a group we have been able to say we do need to know and we are entitled to know.”

How to engage in this dialogue may itself be a lesson transportation needs to and wants to learn.

As supervisor of occupational and physical therapy for the Palm Beach County, Fla., School District, Jean Zimmerman often sits on the other side of the IEP table during touchy conversations between transporters and parents. She said pupil transporters need to learn how to ask questions about parental demands to see if what’s being asked is really necessary or best for the student and to say no when it isn’t.

In a recent case at her own school, transportation’s presence at an IEP meeting could have saved itself from later rewriting a requirement that a driver provide literal door-to-door service. Had transportation representatives been at the meeting to ask the right questions, they would have found out that grandparents were at home and were available to meet the students at the stop, instead of forcing the aide to walk to the child’s door.

Of course, dialogues go both ways. San Diego’s Robinson notes that, with all the education resources available for pupil transporters, transportation professionals may find that they are teaching teachers about the legal requirements for children with special needs.

“Most general education classroom teachers haven’t had as much training as those of us in the transportation industry on the actual verbiage in IDEA,” she says.For Anderson, one of the most important lessons in transporting special needs students is creating bonds between transportation and the rest of the school community.

“Forming relationships with other departments gives an opportunity to educate them about transportation … Educating the educator allows them explanation and understanding of our world. With understanding will come partnerships.”

Reprinted from the February 2009 issue of School Transportation News magazine. All rights reserved.