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Ten Years through the Rearview Mirror … and Beyond

On July 1, 2006, I officially heeded my internal “turn signal” and left Adams 12 Five Star Schools (Colorado) to follow a road I love to travel: consulting, presenting, and problem-solving full-time with school transporters.

 

As many of you know, I’ve been an in-house attorney with the school district since 1988. I’ve addressed an incredibly broad range of legal issues with the goal of preventing the problems that distract school officials and pose barriers to learning for students. With the 1995-1996 school year came my fascination with the intersection of the law and school transportation. Now it’s simply time to make that side road my main route.

If my metaphors hint (though poorly!) of my previous life as a high school English teacher, I hope you’ll forgive a bit of nostalgia on my part. Actually, reminiscing — and reflection — is what this article is really about. That’s because, as I began reviewing and packing files to move to my new office, I realized that I’m fast approaching my 10 year anniversary as a contributing editor to School Transportation News. So it was natural to look back at the last decade of legal issues that have impacted school transportation. And, in this brief ride down memory lane, I’ll reflect on what we’ve seen and offer thoughts about what’s around the corner.

Where We’ve Been

A glance at the topics most often represented by cases in my year-end articles — “In the Rearview Mirror” — posted in the STN online archives, yields few surprises: special needs transportation, bus stop location issues, driver action and inaction, avoiding foreseeable injury, governmental immunity, student behavior, sexual harassment, and employment concerns. During the last 10 years, judges and hearing officers laid down rules and standards, and I shared them with you so that you could operate within these compliance parameters.

Even while creating and interpreting law, however, the judicial and agency opinions handed down hinted at your need to think outside the “box,” while acting within the rules. For example, a judge in the sexual harassment case Doe v. University of Illinois (STN, May 1998) encouraged application of common sense to avoid overreaction to peer harassment. A case on “choice” transportation clarified that it’s okay for school districts to apply policy provisions consistently, where a free appropriate public education is not in question (STN, August 1999). An unfortunate Arizona decision about bus stop location reminded us to consider what we know about students in planning for their safety (STN, May 2000). These examples, and many others, implicitly urge dialogue with educators and other support service folks; creativity in approach; and, absolutely, attention to the voices in your head and the feelings in the pits of your stomachs as you transport students safely and ready to learn.

Can We Talk?

As we turn the corner into the future of legal issues related to school transportation, these conversations we must have can help us prevent student injury and litigation. We need to be wise about the connection between school transportation and educational accountability, and conscious about taking the right steps to train — and protect — employees. The automatic answer to issues will seldom be as good as the thoughtful answer.

Toward these ends, there are subjects we need to talk about, particular discussions we must have. I whole-heartedly agree with STN Editor Bill Paul’s observation in the May 2006 STN: “… [W]hat we need to do is upgrade our conversation.” Here are some of the topics I want to talk with you about, and about which I hope you’ll talk “amongst yourselves.” The goal: reaching meaningful solutions to the dilemmas that divert you from your mission and threaten to compromise student welfare. We must consider:

• How should you identify and address the real risks in decision-making around special needs transportation?

• How does the nature of “today’s” family (with its mobility, divorce, economic concerns, and fears for the future) impact school transportation?

• How can we balance employee and student concerns?

• What are the essential training issues, from a legal perspective

• How can we be partners with educators on the road to student achievement?

These will be topics I’ll focus on as I continue down my road, and I hope you’ll “ride” alongside me so that we can, together, arrive at the best answers.

My Road Ahead

I’m excited to tell you that, by the time you read this, my new video training program “Steering Clear of Liability: Training for School Bus Drivers” will be available. It’s been many years in the making, and I believe you’ll agree that it will drive home necessary messages about drivers’ needs to follow established procedures.

My new journey is bound to include frequent keynote presentations and workshops (it’s the “ham” in me!) And, I have in mind a number of new pamphlets, training programs, and even books. But a very good friend — a former director of Special Education — advises that, when you leave a job, it’s important to identify what you loved most about the job and try to duplicate those aspects after the goodbyes are memories. What I have loved most about being in-house counsel is problem solving about individual students and employees. I believe that my role has been to help break down barriers to learning, and avoid distractions for school district administrators. I hope you’ll help me continue in these roles. So, to be sure my work continues to be relevant, I invite you share your questions and concerns with me regularly. I need to hear from you, so that what you hear from me meets your on-going needs.

Burns is an attorney, consultant and owner of Education Compliance Group, Inc. She is also the editor of Legal Routes, developer of “Confidential Records: Training for School Bus Drivers,” and co-author of “School Bus Stops: A Safety Guide for Transporters.” She can be reached at ecginc@qwest.net.

Reprinted from the July 2006 issue of School Transportation News magazine. All rights reserved.

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