FRISCO, Texas — During a four-hour seminar at the Transporting Students with Disabilities (TSD) and Special Needs conference, industry veterans John Benish, Carolyn Nunes and Alexandra Robinson provided participants with the legal and operational foundations of transporting students with disabilities.
For many first-time attendees in the room, the presentation was an eye-opener on the intricacies of ensuring students are transported in the Least Restrictive Environment. Robinson, a consultant and tenured faculty member for the conference, said everyday decisions are being made on transporting students in the least restrictive environment, without transportation personnel even involved in the decisions at the individualized education program (IEP) meetings.
Benish, the chief operating officer for contractor Cook-Illinois in Chicago and a member of the TSD Conference advisory board, added that transportation staff needs to have skin in the game when it comes to how students are transported to and from school. He reminded attendees that they have a right to be in those meetings just as much as everyone else should.
“How many decisions are made before the child even gets on the bus? What is needed once the child is on the bus?” Benish asked, adding that there are a lot of decisions that need to be made before the driver even presses the gas pedal.
Robinson noted that by coming to conferences such as TSD, attendees can learn to become experts in the room and maybe even on the IEP team. That’s how first-time TSD attendees Nicole Martin, general manager of TransPar, and Jennie Williams, customer service manager for the company said they feel. TransPar services a state-wide Rhode Island transportation program that transports 3,000 out-of-district students on behalf of 49 local education agencies.
Martin added that TransPar is navigating all the differing polices, procedures and expectations of the districts. Meanwhile, it is also matching them to requirements of both the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and the state regulations.
“I think there’s a lot of misconceptions among the districts, some philosophies, outdated policies and lack of transportation knowledge that if I can come empowered now, I can refute or guide them into a better positive direction, that will help the students ultimately,” she said of the lessons taught by Thursday’s seminar. “And hopefully deescalate and help us provide better student management and safety policies for the students.”
Williams added that she too has felt empowered by the TSD class. She noted that districts she works with are quick to put children in a safety vest, something she’s gone along with because she felt the special education director or teacher knew best. However, she said, the class taught her that a safety vest is not a behavioral intervention tool and her feedback will be different going forward.
Instead, when a district brings up a safety vest, she said she is going to question if the child needs it for safety. If the district says the equipment is needed for behavior, she said the district should first develop a behavior intervention plan. Williams added that she feels more confident to say, “We should start here first.”
Overall, she noted, she said she will ask the questions that she didn’t feel comfortable asking before.
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Jennifer Hayes, a first-time attendee and assistant director of transportation for Broken Arrow Public Schools in Oklahoma, said she’s appreciative for her district sending her to the conference, as her previous district did not invest in training. “As I sit through these trainings, I find myself writing down questions that I need to go back and ask. What are our polices? Who is handling this, that and the other to make sure that we are addressing these things.”
Hayes added that the class helped her think through areas that she’s not able to see every day and allows her to look outside of her typical scope. She said, however, the links and information provided in the session have been extremely helpful.
“I am very interested in finding out how collaborative [my current district is] with transportation,” she said, adding that in her experience IEP meetings have excluded transportation personnel. “Sometimes transportation is siloed and it’s not what we want, but it’s how we’ve been viewed in the past.”tsd