FRISCO, Texas – Five tenured faculty members of the TSD Conference provided perspectives on the history and current struggles of the special needs and preschool student transportation industry, while recommending attendees gain additional training at conference sessions being held through Tuesday.
The "Then, Now & Tomorrow" general session was held at the TSD Conference on Friday evening. Legal consultant Peggy Burns moderated the panel which included Pauline Gervais, retired executive director of transportation for Denver Public Schools; Linda Bluth, expert legal witness and retired director of the Maryland Department of Education's Division of Special Education/Early Intervention Services; Alexandra Robinson, executive director for the Office of Pupil Transportation at the New York City Department of Education; and Susan Shutrump, supervisor of occupational and physical therapy for the Trumbull County Educational Service Center in Ohio.
Burns opened with the thought that special education transportation had come a long way since she and her colleagues had begun pioneering it. Bluth stated that the issue of access has greatly benefited since the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in 1975. Shutrump pointed out the benefits of now afforded by federal and state guidelines as well as the options in wheelchair securements now offered by vendors.
Still, things that were problems then are still problems now. Burns asked panelists for input on how transportation departments can better engage with school administration so they can receive the information needed for optimal school bus services for students with disabilities.
"We've come a long way," Gervais acknowledged. "But we still have a long way to go because people still believe we don't have the right to know." She advised highlighting the fact that the transportation department helps school administration do their jobs. Burns followed up on that point by identifying a different tack: Sharing data and examples that warn administration of the potential consequences that could follow if transportation's input is not valued. "Build trust and be honest," Gervais said.
Robinson suggested attending IEP meetings even if not invited, and inserting goals that would be helpful to the student. IEP plans also need transportation transition training worked into them, said Shutrump, since one crucial aspect of special needs transportation is transitioning students to the daily life when they will not have the yellow school bus around. Robinson said that knowing the school bus is the safest mode of transportation has turned it into a sort of security blanket. She identified travel training as a way to help with that, an area that Bluth said New York excels in.
Burns cautioned that the biggest areas of liability for any district were securement and sexual assault. The latter is still unfortunately prevalent between students on the bus and can be complicated by the close quarters, high backed seats, improperly placed cameras and neglect to review video footage.
Some attendees commented that student medical issues can also be a point of disagreement between transportation departments and parents. "When a district knows a student risk and doesn't take reasonable steps, they're really potentially liable for damage to that child, and that may or may not by reduced by use of contractors," Burns cautioned.
Shutrump emphasized the need for clear district policies and a close collaboration with school nurses and medical personnel. "We need to work as a team to make sure everyone's safe on that school bus," she said.
Robinson stressed the importance of leadership along with collaboration, saying that since school bus drivers are responsible for the actual transport of students, they must be trained and empowered to make good, fast decisions in moments of crisis. Additionally, those with experience must train others to establish a "succession plan."
Bluth said the industry has done a good job advocating for students with disabilities, but decried the "obvious & unforgettable" lack of respect for school bus drivers that still exists throughout much of the school system. The entire audience applauded at that point, making it clear that it was a sentiment felt by not a few student transporters.
Robinson revealed that her background in education made her attuned to how often transportation departments are undervalued by others in the education system. "We're miracle workers," Gervais said of the industry. "You are important. Don't forget that," declared Burns.
All the panelists agreed that the transportation department is its own best advocate, and that team members should not hesitate to step up and insert themselves into conversations and IEP meetings of relevance. "Transportation doesn't toot their own horn enough," commented Shutrump. Gervais encouraged transportation directors to get their direct supervisors on their side and build trust with school administration.
"You should have more questions than you came in here with," Burns told attendees at the end of the session. She urged them to seek out TSD Conference sessions they were interested in, to dive deeper into topics and gain valuable knowledge to take back and share with their teams. Gervais said not to panic over possible compliance issues but to learn from the conference, as it has been the scene of much discussion and information important to the industry over the years.
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