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What Can You Reasonably Control in Your School Bus Operation?

FRISCO, TEXAS — Two TSD Conference workshops encouraged student transporters to focus on what they can control in their operations rather than the constant challenges.

The Saturday afternoon sessions were “Personalized Training Strategies for Special Education Transportation” presented by Fred Doelker, director of safety and training for Michigan-based school bus contractor Dean Transportation, and “Survive to Thrive: Making Human Resources Work for Your Transportation Operation” presented by Mark Hinson, the retired chief human resources officer at Colorado’s Adams 12 Five-Star Schools and a member of the conference board of advisors.

“A culture of safety is only partially based on skills training,” said Doelker, explaining to the human factor of school bus drivers being able to make their own decisions. But transportation directors and supervisors can help ease their burdens, and therefore yield happier drivers, if they take off some of the pressure by defining what is reasonably expected from those drivers.

For example, he questioned whether most adults would be able to sit quietly and face forward in a bus seat they can’t see over for ride times of up to two hours. If not, then bus drivers should not expect students to do so. There are standards, district policies and IEPs, but what actually happens on the bus may be different, and it’s important to be realistic about that.

He said it’s unreasonable to also expect drivers to control things like the time, weather, children running in streets, or unsafe motorists. Doelker also noted that drivers often will not be able to make special needs students sit correctly in the seat, remain in IEP-mandated vests or disembark the bus properly. It’s also unrealistic to expect this to stop fights or enforce cellphone rules.

Doelker advised drivers not to try to fix every issue on their buses. But what they can do is document threats and incidents, alert supervisors to particularly troublesome students or behaviors, and ask for advice or clarification on district policy. Contractors should not neglect to do this as well. Then the district needs to consider changes to policies or how a student is dealt with.

Attendee Adrian Frierson, supervisor of bus operations for Prince William County Schools in Virginia, said Doelker did a good job of addressing common issues his bus drivers and attendants have. Heather Handschin, coordinator for Spotsylvania County Public Schools in Virginia, said she appreciated the perspective of “don’t sweat the small stuff, look at the bigger picture.”

What is reasonable, Doelker stressed, is training and then expecting drivers to not close kids in loading doors, back into cars or neglect to secure wheelchairs. This starts by supervisors and trainers working to eliminate “attention blindness,” a problem that he said causes many minor crashes at familiar places like the bus parking lot, school parking lots, or while pulling up to houses on normal routes.

He explained that these happen because the driver’s mind was already jumping ahead to their route and the kids, so they lost track of what they were doing in the moment.

He advised taking “just one minute” and listed many things that could be accomplished in about that amount of time: Making sure a wheelchair is secured to the floor, engaging the parking brake at every stop, looking before backing, looking before turning, taking a breath before reacting to a frustrating student or motorist, doing a pre-trip or post-trip check, fueling the bus, conversing with students, learning names or simply demonstrating a responsible, caring adult.

“You really have to take advantage of the one minute,” agreed Lance Branch, a substitute bus driver at Frisco Independent School District.

Meanwhile, Hinson’s session also called for transportation departments to focus on how they can improve what’s under their control, and to leverage partnerships with their district human resources department to do so.

Hinson reviewed several of transportation’s most pressing problems from a human resources perspective. He recommended tightening the hiring process, making it take less time and identifying any barriers. The audience agreed that it took up to 15 applicants to yield five hires. “Find out why that is,” said Hinson.

Attendees also expressed familiarity with the “toxic employee” who stirs the pot, has ‘parking lot conversations,’ plants doubt in new recruits, or says safety steps aren’t necessary. “How are you countering that?” Hinson questioned.

“Bad hires—everyone makes them,” stated Hinson, earning an audible confirmation from numerous attendees. To combat that, he said, take your time, tighten the interview process, ask questions about past behavior, propose scenarios and see how they would react, conduct thorough reference checks, review the process to see if it is working and look for individuals who are like your best drivers.

Not dealing with employees who are slackers “erodes confidence in management,” said Hinson. It breeds conflict and is demoralizing, so supervisors must catch it promptly and not allow it to be normalized. The HR department should be involved if an employee feels a supervisor is the one slacking, though Hinson agreed that a situation like that would be a tough one.

Hinson advised supervisors to know and follow guidelines under the Fair Labor Standards Act and enforce “critical” Fit for Duty exams in order to avoid giving themselves and the HR department headaches.

With unions, he said to establish a partnership, have face-to-face conversations rather than email or phone talks, talk about values, build common ground, talk about reality, avoid getting into win-lose approach and not keep score.

HR can help transportation management to create an environment where people want to work and avoid cliques or discontent, Hinson said. The two departments can work together to clearly define roles and responsibilities, make informed personnel decisions and help people get into the position they best perform in.

Lastly, Hinson said that it is well-known that school workers aren’t paid enough for what they do, but identified the “psychological value” that everyone present agreed was why they are in student transportation. Amid all the driver shortages, low recruitment and limited resources, building a sense of team is something in a transportation supervisor’s control. “Look for the joy,” he recommended.




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