There are many reasons to “mainstream” students with special needs onto general education routes, not the least of which is the law. Specifically, 20 U.SC .1400(d) of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that we “prepare them for…employment, and independent living…” In this case, the law has captured a beneficial concept of inclusivity.
Not only does IDEA prepare students with special needs for life beyond school, but it prepares general education students for adult life coexisting with people who have a variety of different abilities. That is, it helps break down the barriers that often isolate students with special needs from their peers and teaches empathy, whether that is something as simple as holding a door open or as complicated as designing a job for a student with special needs. As Temple Grandin, a professor of animal sciences at Colorado State University and autism spectrum advocate aptly put it during her TSD Virtual keynote in November, “A [bus] driver could be the key to a good career.”
So, who are the kids that can be mainstreamed onto general education bus routes? The answer is all of them. However, it will be easier with students that have less severe disabilities. There is no law forbidding putting children with special needs onto general ed buses. In fact, it is helpful to not differentiate between general ed and special ed buses. We have buses and we have students who ride them. Period.
We are more likely to send a single bus into a remote area than to send two buses-one each for general ed and special ed. In other words, we are more likely to opt for cost savings. We are very cognizant that busing kids together, when proper precautions are taken, is better for all children.
Perhaps the biggest danger in mainstreaming involves bullying. Are you paying special attention to signs of bullying? Do you document what you observe? Or are you prone to looking the other wat? You must document every time there in an incident, even if you are worried about your district’s or company’s image. Documentation shows that rules will be enforced. Without them, bullying, harassment, and student injury often result. If kids aren’t safe, you’ve failed in your primary mission.
To minimize the chances of bullying or other harassment, it is recommended that you use assigned seats. This is especially the case for students who need the most care. Assigned seats are used in the classroom, so it should not be too difficult to implement them on the bus as well. Assigning seats will also east the bus evacuation process for each child. Use the data that you already have on special needs students and request data that is missing (using the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, if necessary). Transportation has a right to the data, and this is the opportunity to use it.
Your children need to understand the bus rules. Consider using social stories for more than children with autism. Post the rules on the bus, but instead of listing them only in text, show them in pictures, which can be more easily interpreted by students with and without disabilities. Be sure they also have them in text format but show the rules that are most important (like sitting forward) in pictures.
Related: Temple Grandin Shares Expert Perspective on Autism Spectrum During TSD Virtual
Related: TSD Virtual: What Student Transporters Need to Know About Their Students
Related: Michigan School Bus Attendant Paints Her Own Future in School Transportation
Related: Adapting to Meet Challenges in Transport of Students With Special Needs
Related: Experts Share Tips for Re-engaging Students with Special Needs During Reopening
Put your students, drivers and aides in the best position to succeed on the bus ride by also listing the students with special needs along with their particulars on the route sheet. This does not mean, however, that you are to expose these children to anyone but the designated person or people to meet them. No child should be released, otherwise.
Progressive school districts have implemented standards that encourage students with special needs to challenge themselves. Instead of everyone receiving curbside service, many students with special needs receive bus service at their neighborhood bus stops. I’ve personally experienced the benefits of the Bus In the Classroom (BIC) program implemented at the Newport-Mesa Unified School District in Southern California, and I can attest to the wonderful difference it has made in the children’s lives. Students start with no idea about busing. But in six lessons over as many weeks as needed, they learn the skills necessary to wait properly, board, ride effectively and exit the bus appropriately. In addition to drivers loving the program, these skills last a lifetime and set students up for a professional career when they are old enough.
Empathy is an emotion you should already have. But like most everything else, it could require practice to master. Try to put yourself in the position of a child with special needs, or the child themself. Be hard on the issues but be soft on the people. In a world where relationships matter, once you’ve ruined a relationship it’s very hard to “un-ruin” it. Think of how great it would be to make a child’s life better by allowing him or her to be treated like a “normal” child, to go the bus stop like a general ed student, to ride the big bus, and to grow boundlessly. Advocating for students takes courage and perseverance but it pays off immensely.
Pete Meslin is the retired director of transportation for Newport-Mesa Unified School District in Southern California and a member of the TSD Conference National Board of Advisors. He is also a consultant to Access Exchange International, a non-profit advocate for inclusive public transit of persons with disabilities worldwide.
Editor’s Note: As reprinted in the March 2021 issue of School Transportation News.