What Will Happen to School Bus Watch?

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WASHINGTON , D.C. — As districts find themselves in summer training season, the future of the popular school bus driver terrorism-preparedness program School Bus Watch remains unknown.

The American Trucking Association (ATA) is no longer running the program. In May, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) announced HMS Company would take over a three-year, $15.4 million grant to administer a Highway Watch-like program. But it is unclear what HMS Company’s winning bid will mean for the School Bus Watch program, previously run as an offshoot of Highway Watch.

TSA said the school bus program was not specifically mentioned in the HMS grant application. At this writing, HMS had not returned multiple calls from School Transportation News and had not contacted any of the major school transportation industry associations. Shortly after TSA announced ATA would no longer administer the program, ATA’s executive director asked all Highway Watch partners to cease training immediately.

Between 2000 and 2006, Congress earmarked approximately $63 million for the highway safety initiative exclusively for the ATA and it’s existing Highway Watch program. In the summer of 2005, ATA and the school bus industry premiered the jointly developed School Bus Watch program. The program consisted of a pamphlet, either a DVD or 60- to 75- minutes of in-person training, an incident reporting hotline and an Information Sharing and Analysis Center, which logged and analyzed calls.

Following a critical report by the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general and accusations that too much was spent on marketing and promotion rather than on training, Congress mandated that the program be competitively bid. HMS bested 11 other grant applicants, including ATA. The 13-year-old private and government contracting firm previously provided fleet management services to the Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Police Department and emergency call services for the U.S. Army.

ATA has said in the past four years it has trained more than 800,000 drivers. However, neither the ATA nor any of the major school transportation associations could say how many of those were school bus drivers. For a time, Georgia required all those seeking CDLs with school bus endorsements to obtain the training. According to National School Transportation Association Director of Operations and Marketing Danielle Abe, Oklahoma, Alabama and New York all invested in training their drivers.

Mike Martin, executive director for the National Association for Pupil Transportation, said he’s heard some in the industry say the School Bus Watch training was insufficient and merely emphasized pre-trip inspections and other elements already familiar to pupil transporters. HMS give school buses the opportunity to move out of the shadow of the trucking industry and refresh the program, which had lost some momentum, Martin said. Still, there’s value in the program’s “if you see something, say something’ message,”

NASDPTS President Derek Graham said he was eager to get the program back on course. The only shortcomings he saw were some glitches in distributing cards that indicated drivers had completed the course.

“Hopefully, things are going to get ironed out within the next month or so, because an awful lot of training goes on in the late part of the summer,” Graham said.

That may be optimistic. At this writing, TSA said the school transportation industry might not have an answer on the future School Bus Watch until mid- to late-June. If the program does continue, it would take at least an additional 30 to 90 days to restart the training.

Currently, all three associations are in a “holding pattern.” Abe said NSTA, which until May was administering all school bus driver registration, does not have a contingency plan should School Bus Watch disappear entirely. If they need to, Abe said the associations could purchase ATA’s copy-righted School Bus Watch material or develop training of its own.

Reprinted from the July 2008 issue of School Transportation News magazine. All rights reserved.