A free webinar presented by School Transportation News tackled the topic of wheelchair securement on a school bus, which can be a confusing and litigious topic.
Darren Reaume, national training manager for webinar sponsors Q’Straint / Sure-Lok, explained during the live event on Aug. 1 that success can be achieved through seeking advice and training from special needs equipment manufacturers, plus communicating with other districts on techniques, challenges and procedures.
Also participating in the webinar to share their experiences were Laura Beth Blankenship and Lauren Mayes, certified child passenger safety technicians from Knox County Schools in Knoxville, Tennessee. Blankenship is a pediatric physical therapist, while Mayes is a special education router. Both women explained that their transportation director helped them see there was more to the safe transportation of special needs students than simply asking if they rode a school bus, since “the bus is an extension of the classroom.”
Reaume reviewed challenges that are faced by many districts when it comes to safely transporting students in wheelchairs. He noted that if school bus drivers are trained on this topic at all, they are often insufficiently trained, or are taught incorrect securement principles. The wheelchair lift and securement equipment on their buses could be outdated or even nonexistent.
“Often what worked 30 years ago is not what works now, or what the manufacturer is recommending,” Reaume stated. The roadeo held at STN’s Transporting Students with Disabilities and Special Needs Conference is one place where Q’Straint is able to provide more accurate guidance on the way transportation staff secure wheelchairs on school buses.
Blankenship explained that “occupant restraint is always difficult,” so it’s important to have the therapist helping the driver to make sure what’s best and safest for the student is being carried out. It is important to correctly secure not only the wheelchair, but also the student, Reaume agreed.
Contributing to the difficulties and confusion in wheelchair securement on a bus are the facts that school budgets are tight and that transportation isn’t always the highest priority. “The fact that you keep vehicles so [long] means that equipment gets used over and over, and then you get new buses with new equipment. You really need to train your drivers on every possible type of equipment that they may see on these buses,” said Reaume.
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Mayes said that using contractors, as Knox County does, also presents a challenge. Often transportation representatives are not included in IEP meetings. Instead, they are simply notified that a student needs a lift-equipped bus.
“Transportation falls toward the end of the IEP and things toward the end tend to get wrapped up as quickly as they can,” noted Blankenship. He was a panelist for a discussion on multi-disciplinary transportation advocacy teams during the 2019 TSD Conference.
Lack of interdepartmental communication and the compartmentalization of tasks often complicate what could be a more streamlined task, explained Mayes, who helps route the nearly 150 buses and shuttles that service 90 school sites throughout the Knox County district. “It’s important to be in communication with other districts,” in order to learn new and better ways of doing things, she recommended.
Effecting change begins with “the importance of one,” which in Blankenship’s case was her supervisor. One effective leader can provide a strong guiding force and clear direction for the way the department needs to go to improve. That kind of persistent leader can start multiplying leaders and draw from other districts’ experiences to develop a best practice to follow, she added.
Blankenship cited conferences such as the TSD Conference as a helpful source of connection and information to find allies in the field, best practices, manufacturer recommendations and assistance in troubleshooting issues. She added that it’s important to send not only transportation staff but also special needs staff, so they can be on the same page and gain a better understanding of how to work together for student success.
Once they were more educated on best practices, Knox County Schools hired aides for every accessible bus, expanded driver training and instituted a hotline for problems that arose.
“Prioritize what your needs are, and once you’ve identified a deficit, come up with a solution,” advised Blankenship.
While an IEP may call for a wheelchair lift-equipped bus, Blankenship advised looking at what’s best for the student. For instance, it may be better to transfer them to a bus seat and use a harness.
The district looks at atypical wheelchairs and extra equipment students may have, then studies how to best secure everything for school bus rides. For non-WC-19 chairs, this may require extra attention. The district is also working with its contractors so the equipment on their buses is uniform and meets the latest best-practice standards.
“We look at it in a student-specific way and make sure we’re doing it according to best practices and manufacturer guidelines,” Mayes said. Subsequent follow-up and continued communication are essential so that things continue to run smoothly.
You would think technology makes things easier, but it can actually make it harder to transport the varied types of increasingly complicated wheelchairs, Reaume noted.
Education is key, and the TSD Conference, STN EXPO Reno and STN EXPO Indianapolis were cited as valuable places to attain that. The University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute provides information that Blankenship said she frequently references.
Q’Straint conducts an on-demand online course as well as webinars and training classes that further train participants and answer their questions.