While safety is the primary goal of all student transportation professionals, those in charge of designing seating and securement systems for students with special needs have a particularly challenging road.
With the Transporting Students with Disabilities and Preschoolers Conference just days away, School Transportation News took the opportunity to touch base with Connie Murray, president of E-Z-ON Products Inc. of Florida, who has more than 30 years of experience serving special needs children and ensuring their school bus ride is just as safe as it is for typical peers.
During the past three decades, Murray has witnessed the growth of the special needs segment and advocated for better service delivery, better training and better products to meet the needs of these vulnerable students. When there is a new problem, such as the "Houdini" students who can slip out of their harnesses and vests, Murray seeks to fix it. Last year, she told STN about specific changes she made to her company's E-Z-On Vest to address this problem. Now, all attachments and adjusting parts, including the crotch strap and securement strap, are located at the base of the school bus seat behind the seatback — out of the reach of small hands.
Yet not every problem has a simple solution. Take the tragedy that occurred at Hillsborough County Public Schools in January 2012, when 7-year-old Isabella Herrera died as a result of a choking incident on her school bus. The attorney who filed the lawsuit for Isabella's parents alleged that her wheelchair was not positioned properly, causing her head to fall forward and cutting off airflow. Since then, student transporters across the nation have asked themselves how they can prevent tragedies like this by, for example, providing more detailed securement training or revisiting their emergency protocols.
STN: As an industry veteran, what do you think transportation departments can do to prevent tragedies like the case of Isabella Herrera?
Murray: Transportation departments and school bus contractors should have a "need-to-know" policy. When the bus driver and aide are well informed of each passenger's physical, mental or behavioral condition, and the potential life-threatening side effects caused by that condition, they would know what to do in a given situation. Diabetes, epilepsy, behavioral disorders, autism, neuromuscular and many other diseases can produce symptoms and side effects that, if not recognized and treated, can lead to further deterioration of the child's condition or even death.
STN: How important is it to train bus drivers and aides who serve special needs passengers on proper securement? Should this training be mandated?
Murray: Absolutely, proper securement should be mandated. On a special needs bus, you'll find a variety of child passenger restraint systems. Most will have similar securing straps (CamWrap technology), but that doesn't mean they are all secured the same way, nor does it mean the straps can be interchanged — never use one manufacturer's securing strap with another manufacturer's product. The bus driver and aide must know how to install and understand why a particular safety device is used. Infant seats, toddler seats, booster seats, vests and harnesses are typically used on the actual bus seat, but wheelchair passenger restraints and wheelchair tie-downs again offer a variety of safety devices and securement systems. It's a lot to learn, but if one life is saved, it will be worth it.
STN: Another issue in the Florida case is that the child's head allegedly "bobbed" forward and cut off her airflow. How can vests like the EZ-ON vest provide proper postural support and protection?
Murray: The Safety Vest primarily keeps the child's torso in an upright position, but only if it properly fits the child and is secured and installed correctly. The vest does not support the child's head. There are therapeutic neck support devices in the marketplace, but again, the neck support should only be used when ordered by the physical therapist or a physician. Neck supports are manufactured for individual physical conditions and must fit properly.
STN: What are the latest products or innovations your company is working on for 2013?
Murray: After two years of listening to suggestions from the special needs industry, CPS techs, OTs and PTs, research and testing, E-Z-ON Products, Inc. of Florida is ready to manufacture and sell THE MAX VEST. The finished product will be shown at the TSD conference in March. Please stop by Booth #516 and see what else E-Z-ON has been doing. The model's small, back-zipper, adjustable vest (model no. #103Z/S) with a seat mount (CamWrap) was our best seller. Why? The size small with back zipper inserts and adjustable shoulders seems to properly fit a wide range of sizes and ages for the Head Start and pre-K children. E-Z-ON calls this vest a "classic."
STN: What were your most widely sold products in 2012? Did you notice any purchasing trends?
Murray: E-Z-ON did have a slight increase in sales of the KidCam Harness, the CamHarness and other harness-type safety systems. This could be because special needs passengers are getting older and no longer need the type of restraint provided by the vest, or more schools may be aware that the harness systems can be used for any passenger and most types of bus seats.