How to ensure safe travels for students with special needs

Transportation strategies get special needs students to school ready to learn
By: | Issue: October, 2019
September 16, 2019
School bus drivers in Georgia’s DeKalb County School District participate in a school bus rodeo, an annual event to boost driving skills, including for drivers involved in special needs transportation.School bus drivers in Georgia’s DeKalb County School District participate in a school bus rodeo, an annual event to boost driving skills, including for drivers involved in special needs transportation.

The continued struggles of some school systems around special needs transportation have convinced a growing number of district leaders that generalized behavior management procedures often fall short.

More educators now share key components of a student’s individualized education program (IEP) and behavior intervention plan (BIP) with bus drivers and attendants involved in special needs transportation so they can respond appropriately.

“If the child had a bad morning on the bus, you can guarantee that they won’t have such a good day at school either,” says Beverley Holden Johns, a former Illinois district administrator who is now a learning and behavior consultant.

Transportation personnel at Fairport Central School District in New York, for example, can access instruction and behavior plans through a secure online platform. The transportation staff is alerted whenever the behavior intervention team amends an IEP.

Also, the transportation team reviews IEPs each summer to ensure data in their bus routing software matches that of the special education department.

“Bus drivers have a challenging job,” Johns says. “In no other career are you expected to manage the behavior of children with your back turned and while driving—sometimes in pretty awful weather like snow and ice.”

Making special needs transportation supports clear

When it comes to sharing sensitive student information—such as medical records and behavior history—some district administrators may withhold critical details that transportation staff should know.

But providing such details doesn’t violate a student’s right to privacy under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, Johns says. Anyone with an “educational interest” in the child can access sensitive data.

Read more: Getting students with special needs on and off the bus

Knowing what triggers a strong reaction from a child helps drivers and aides respond appropriately. In some cases, students can be given noise-canceling headphones or mobile devices to distract them from noises.

At Klein ISD in Texas, the IEP and behavior teams supply special needs transportation staff with strategies that will help students ride successfully. Drivers and monitors learn how classroom teachers support a student’s IEP or BIP, and what rewards are used to reinforce positive behaviors at school and at home, says Shawna Jones, special education advisor.

Administrators, teachers and transportation staff should also strengthen their ties with parents. During an IEP meeting, the school team should ask about any behavior or medical issues that could impact the child’s safe transport.

The team can then determine whether the child requires an aide if their needs become too significant for a driver to handle alone in an emergency. The team can also plan extra training for the driver and the aide.

The school team will commonly assign aides to students who are prone to seizures or who need help administering medicine for conditions, such as diabetes. Also, the team can decide whether a parent or other adult must be present at pickup and drop-off. Otherwise, the bus driver may be directed to take the child back to the school.

Ultimately, the IEP should clarify expectations for transportation staff, educators and parents so that everyone agrees on the child’s transportation needs and what happens when there is a glitch, says Jan E. Tomsky, a school attorney with Fagen Friedman & Fulfrost LLP in California.

“If there’s a challenge or a dispute, districts can be held accountable for not having laid out clearly enough in the IEP what the details are of how transportation will be provided,” Tomsky says.

Onboard interventions

Aides help to monitor medical conditions, manage behaviors or teach students a new skill related to transportation, such as walking to and waiting at a bus stop. If a nurse accompanies a child while at school, then a nurse is likely a must during transport, too. The IEP team communicates needs to the transportation department.

Students may also get an aide if they are unable to self-regulate and control their behavior on a bus, says Peter Lawrence, the transportation director at Fairport Central School District. Entry-level attendants in the district are paid $11.80 per hour and work on average 5 1/2 hours per day.

Read more: Moving forward with college and careers in special education

“It is critical that these people are caring and patient; they cannot take a student’s behaviors personally, and must remember that each day is a fresh start,” Lawrence says. “The truly successful driver and attendant teams recognize the small successes and celebrate them.”

In DeKalb County School District in Georgia, monitors ride with students on 155 of the system’s 263 buses, says Lanetta G. Mills, special transportation operations manager.

DeKalb’s Department of Exceptional Education trains drivers and monitors on de-escalation techniques for students who display behavior problems.

For example, when a child with autism is feeling anxious, bus drivers have learned to speak in a way that calms the child, Mills says. To settle a child, staff should address the student by name rather than intervening aggressively, adds Johns, the consultant.

Offering “a gentle or reassuring touch” may be another effective approach for some students. But bus drivers and monitors must also understand that more intense physical contact should be used only as a last resort, such as when children may cause harm to themselves or others. In such cases, the monitor should notify the driver, who should look for a safe place to pull over in the event a student needs to be restrained, Mills says.

For dangerous behaviors that recur, school building principals and other administrators may impose restrictions such as assigned seating, loss of school privileges or suspension from the bus, she says.

Before excluding the student, however, school administrators must first determine whether a student’s IEP plan or Section 504 (the civil rights law that prevents discrimination against students with disabilities) stipulates transportation as a “related service” that is needed for a special needs child to benefit from a free and public education program.

In some cases, alternative transportation must be provided if students are suspended from the usual bus service.

When the bus stops

Administrators cannot shorten instruction time for students with disabilities simply to accommodate transportation, says Betsey A. Helfrich, a special education attorney and partner at St. Louis-based Mickes O’Toole LLC. Cutting the school day short is a violation of Section 504.

So what happens when a driver has to stop the bus to assist a student? If a bus is late, that time may need to be made up, Helfrich says.

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Similarly, if transportation delays cause a student to miss occupational therapy sessions, that time may need to be made up, too.

Students with physical and behavior needs may also require additional time to board buses, but it’s unlawful to dismiss them earlier than other students, she says.

“There was a rise of this a few years ago where districts were having buses come late to school with students with disabilities and picking them up early,” Helfrich says. “Their motive was to keep students with disabilities safe so they could travel without the crush of all the children coming in and out of school. But what they ended up doing was finding themselves in the crosshairs of the Office for Civil Rights, and treating children unequally.”

Emily Ann Brown is associate editor.