Special needs and securement experts weighed in on a troubling incident last year of an improperly restrained, wheelchair-bound special needs student falling to the floor of the school bus while the vehicle is in motion.
The incident occurred in Georgia’s Fulton County School District last September and was reported by CBS46 last week. As the school bus made a right turn, video shows a 17-year-old special needs student in a wheelchair tipping over and hitting her head on the seat across from her. CBS46 reported that she lay there for over three minutes before the bus stopped at her house. At that point, the video shows the driver and an aide assisting the student.
The teen’s mother is suing the school district for injuries she said that her daughter suffered, in part to her neck, back, shoulders and brain.
The lawsuit also cites negligence by the bus driver who did not correctly restrain the the student's wheelchair by ensuring “the locks on the floor were properly locked around the wheelchair tires,” as stated in the CBS story.
Disturbing as this whole incident is, STN contacted two industry professionals who revealed that there is more to this story than negligence.
Darren Reaume, national training manager for wheelchair restraint system provider Q’Straint, pointed out that this situation “also reveals a surprising lack of knowledge regarding what properly securing a wheelchair entails."
"For example, near the end of the news report they discussed the wheels of the wheelchair not being properly locked. Locking wheels (or wheel locks) have no bearing on the safety of a student when being transported, as a four-point securement system secures the wheelchair independent of the wheel locks.”
Sue Shutrump, an occupational and physical therapist and a Tenured Faculty member of STN’s Transporting Students with Disabilities and Preschoolers Conference, confirmed Reaume’s observations. She said wheelchairs securements on the bus always fasten to the body of the wheelchair in four places. “There’s no way that would have occurred if the wheelchair tie-downs were used properly,” she told STN.
Both Reaume and Shutrump stressed that this unfortunate incident only emphasizes the importance of properly training school bus operators for situations they will encounter when transporting special needs students.
Reaume recognized the difficulties school bus drivers can face when it comes to accommodating special needs students on the bus. “The operator has a difficult job – there are hundreds of different wheelchairs on the market, and without regular training it can seem like a monumental task to secure some of these wheelchairs, the majority of which weren’t designed with transportation in mind,” he said.
There needs to be adequate training, Shutrump added, so transportation staff know how to properly use the available safety equipment. Reaume said Q’straint assists with this by providing training webinars for school bus operators before the start of the upcoming school year to supplement any local in-service training.
Lastly, Reaume said school districts should communicate with parents on the importance of providing adequate and safe equipment that is suitable for the school bus ride.
“Parents can also play a role in helping school districts ensure the safety of their child by purchasing an ANSI/RESNA WC-19 compliant wheelchair," he recommended. "These wheelchairs come with clearly visible, crash-tested anchorage points on which to place the securement hooks. This eliminates the operator having to problem solve on where to attach to the frame of the wheelchair, eliminating a major source of operator error.”