Early one morning in April 2014, a neighboring county experienced a bus tragedy. A young student returned to the bus for a dropped object, and as the bus pulled away the student was struck and killed. For some reason, after retrieving the object, the student turned to his left instead of walking directly away from the bus. Tragically, the right front tire of the bus struck the student as it pulled away from the school. Our hearts were broken for all involved, and our minds automatically began racing with “what if’s”, as they do any time there is news of a tragedy involving a school bus and students.
After our morning routes, I participated in a “round table” discussion with Director of Operations Doug Suits, Safety and Training Coordinator Herby Worley, and a couple of our driver trainers. The question on the table was, “How can we prevent this from happening in our school zones?”
At first, we focused on our current solutions: adding more adults to help load and unload students and asking administrators to continue checking around each bus then signal when it’s clear for the driver to pull away. The one new idea we kept coming back to was “forcing” students to walk straight out, unable to go left or right, until they were a safe distance away from the school bus.
According to the Georgia Department of Education Best Practices and Policy for safe student unloading, students should be at least 12 feet away before a school bus pulls away. Logistically, however, this is not always possible in a school unloading area. There are also campuses where vehicles unload students in the same area along with pedestrian traffic, which creates many moving parts in a bus unloading area. With 40 or more students unloading a bus, it can be quite a challenge for two, or even three adults, to keep an eye on every child, every second. We all know, it only takes a few seconds of distraction for a tragedy to happen.
As a safety team, we drew lines on paper and on the whiteboard representing buildings, sidewalks, bus traffic flow, and the distance from the bus to the school doors. Slowly, an idea emerged to use PVC pipe and make a narrow barricade, “a chute,” in the area where the bus pulls up. Once the bus has stopped, the driver opens the doors inside the “chute,” and students unload and walk straight out to a safe distance away from the bus.
Within a few hours, we contacted a vendor that supplied our safety cones, and the vendor showed us an extendable safety bar that slipped over the top of the cones. Six cones and four bars made a “safety chute” that could extend twelve feet away from the bus as the state recommends. We ordered, labeled, and distributed cones and bars to each school. We began collaborating with bigger teams and school administrators to explain the concept and to place the chute in each school unloading zone. All of our administrators worked diligently using the new “chutes” to make our bus zones as safe as possible.
Five years later, the safety chutes are still in place at every school, every morning, for every student who rides the bus. Adults still must be in place to supervise before drivers allow students to unload our buses. Catoosa County Public Schools has 17 schools: 10 primary/elementary, three middle, three high, and one alternative school. Our primary/elementary schools all have one chute and unload one bus at a time. Middle schools and high schools have one to three chutes, allowing one but no more than three buses to unload at a time.
Several of our schools requested an extra chute for car rider unloading, again forcing the students to walk straight out away from moving vehicles. A few of our schools use the chutes to keep students in view as they load in the afternoon. Mr. Chance Nix, Principal at Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School, states, “At LFO high school, the safety chutes help us fulfill our fundamental purpose of ensuring all kids learn by getting them to and from school safely.”
According to Mr. Herby Worley, the transportation department safety and training coordinator, “All transportation employees, regardless of their position, are also ‘safety professionals,’ responsible for the proper training of their students.” Mr. Worley stated, “Parents who place a child on the school bus each morning should have the peace of mind to know that their child’s safety is paramount and that their child will come home safely each day.”
Dr. Kent McCrary, principal at Battlefield Elementary, shares the CCPS Transportation’s Department’s daily mission of safe transportation. According to Dr. McCrary, “You can’t walk in a school these days without hearing the word ‘safety.’ School officials, both district and school level, are constantly looking for ways to keep students safe. The Catoosa County Department of Transportation relies on constant training, adequate supervision, and open dialogue to ensure student safety each and every day. Dialogue and teamwork brought about changes to our bus unloading zones. By adding the safety chutes, our county has made the morning bus unloading process much safer.”
Catoosa County Public Schools has shared the concept and practice of safety chutes at the annual Georgia Association for Pupil Transportation Conferences, as part of various safety training and professional learning events, in networking opportunities at National Association for Pupil Transportation conferences, and at the School Bus Summit in Dallas, Texas.
We don’t know if other school systems have implemented the safety chute system, but in Catoosa County, we continue to use the chutes every day on every school campus. The chutes are still doing what they were originally intended to do: keep our students safe during bus unloading and loading at our schools.
Dr. McCrary added, “As a father whose kids rode the bus, and as an administrator, I’m proud of our transportation department and their constant efforts to improve safety. As our school district’s value promise says, we work together to ensure safety for ‘Every Child, Every Day, Without Exception.’”
Editor’s Note: Jerene Jones serves as transportation manager for Catoosa County Public Schools in Ringgold, Ga. Her photo of the safety chute display was one of two winners of the STN Photo Contest that was held during the NAPT Summit and NASDPTS Conference that was held in October 2018 in Kansas City, Missouri. The chute was on display during the School Facility Planning workshop.