While the yellow bus is the safest way for students to get to school, students with disabilities may in some cases require additional support to ensure their full safety, such as child safety restraint systems.
Otherwise known as CSRS, these occupant restraints encompass a variety of different seating options. According to Sue Shutrump, supervisor of occupational therapy and physical therapy services for the Trumbull County Educational Service Center in Ohio, these can include “different types of car seats or things that function like a car seat.” Car seats used in passenger vehicles, integrated seats, add-on seats or safety vests can also be options.
“There are different types like the STAR System or Besi Protech or PCR made by HSM, the portable car seat that is secured to the bus seat, only used specifically in school buses,” said Shutrump “It also would incorporate a safety vest because its been crash tested to ensure a child’s safety in a vehicle. It would also include some of these lap belt add-ons, like the E-Z On lap belt add-on.”
There are many reasons a child may have to use a CSRS, such as age and size in the cases of infants and toddlers, or certain medical conditions or behavioral disorders.
But using these systems alone is simply not enough to ensure a child’s safety—if a bus driver or aide is not properly and thoroughly trained in the usage of CSRS, they may not be fully effective and in some cases, even dangerous.
“There have actually been cases where the equipment was used wrong and there was a child fatality as a result of it. We get injuries from it. It’s just important that you use the equipment in the right form,” said Charley Kennington, director of Innovative Transportation Solutions at Region 4 ESC in Houston and a former Texas state director of school transportation.
One of those cases was the 1999 death of Cynthia Susavage in Quakertown, Pennsylvania. Cynthia’s IEP required a CSRS because she had a generalized seizure disorder and related musculo-skeletal problems from Batten Disease that rendered her unable to sit upright on her own. According to court documents, the four-point harness used by the contractor to secure her on the bus was backwards, with the top of its zipper resting against her throat. Only two of the four points were secured, and were using straps from other harnesses. The harness also did not have a crotch strap.
As a result, Cynthia slid downward in her seat. For the next 20 minutes of the bus ride, the front part of the harness designed to go across her chest came in contact with her throat and strangled her. The bus driver realized that Cynthia was unresponsive, but it was too late. For the next nine months, the 5-year-old girl went in and out of a coma before dying.
Cynthia’s family eventually settled with the school district, an intermediary unit that worked with the district’s students with disabilities and the school bus company for a total of $3.6 million.
Before the settlement, a federal judge said all three entities were at fault for not properly training the driver, according to 2003 article in The Morning Call.
Student transporters seeking to learn more about proper securement techniques have a variety of opportunities to further their training.
One option is an eight-hour course with curriculum approved by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration titled Child Passenger Safety on School Buses. The course explores the proper use and installation of CSRS on school buses and participants receive three Continuing Education Units (CEUs) from Safe Kids Worldwide upon completion.
Another option is the National Child Passenger Safety Certification, a program by Safe Kids Worldwide that also offers the NHTSA-approved curriculum. The program website includes a section to help visitors find experts and training opportunities near them.
“I would also suggest checking to see if you have a local child passenger coalition in your community. Check with your children’s hospitals, fire departments, social services or other government agencies. Many times they will have techs that are trained, and if those techs can’t answer a question, typically they have contacts out there and they’ll call those contacts,” said Kala Henkensiefken, transportation coordinator at Brainerd Public Schools in Minnesota and a NHTSA-certified child passenger safety technician and instructor. “I get calls quite often from our state.”
One of the biggest challenges facing school districts today are budgetary constraints, and these can considerably impact transportation departments. Lack of funding can be an obstacle for transporters in receiving the training they need.
“Sometimes you see districts that say, ‘It costs too much for that kind of training. We’ll just show you how it works,’” said Kennington, adding that the individuals who say this sometimes don’t know how to use CSRS themselves.
Henkensiefken said she was able to obtain funding for her training through her district’s special education department. The funds were set aside for staff development, and CSRS training applied as it is directly related to providing transportation service for students with disabilities.
She also added that her district’s contract with its bus contractor includes the availability of a technician to train drivers.
“We have it written into our contract with our bus contractor that they have to have a car seat tech, because we want to make sure that when they’re training their drivers, if they have questions and I’m not available, that they have somebody that can help them. That’s been pretty beneficial for us,” she said.
Working with Parents
Another challenge transporters may face in working with CSRS is reluctance from parents. As Shutrump noted, some parents may initially be wary the idea of their children being “restrained” on the school bus. However, there are things that transporters can do to help to put parents more at ease, which can simply be a matter of word choice.
“Some parents will say, ‘Harnesses are for dogs and horses not for people,’” she said. “If a child needs a safety vest, we’re very, very careful never to use the word ‘harness.’”
She added that making it clear to parents that a CSRS is for the child’s safety and not just to restrain them can go a long way.
“We’re careful to let them know this isn’t just a tie-down for a child. We are using it to keep them safe within the vehicle. Making sure that the focus is always the safety of the child in terms of the words we use is very important,” she said.
Henkensiefken said having the parents present for things like a vest fitting can also be beneficial.
“If we determine that a student is going to be in a safety vest, many times what we do in that case is we will go to the classroom, if they’re already attending school, and fit them for the vest. In some cases, I will actually bring a school bus training seat in, and we’ll put the kid in the seat, get them all buckled in, so that the staff, parents and child can all see what’s going to happen before they get in the school bus,” she said.
Shutrump added that having parents go out on a test ride once the appropriate CSRS system has been identified is also another strategy to help ease their minds.
“I think test rides are a wonderful way to educate not only staff but parents and the community about how concerned school bus people are about the safety of children and how concerned we are about getting it right,” she said.