HomeSpecial ReportsBus Monitors: Your Next Driver Retention Strategy?

Bus Monitors: Your Next Driver Retention Strategy?

Most people in the pupil transportation industry realize just how much attention is needed when driving a school bus full of boisterous children. It can be a recipe for disaster when weather hazards, boisterous students, or entitled parents stir into the batter. The addition of monitors can greatly increase chances for a successful outcome, a lesson that arose from a lawsuit settled last fall regarding a South Carolina special needs student who was repeatedly beaten on her school bus by another student with an emotional disturbance but who wasn’t assigned a monitor for the ride.

Many school districts are discovering that having enough monitors may well be the icing on the cake, for general education routes as well as when required for special needs. While many districts are still struggling with a shortage of both drivers and monitors, two districts in Georgia are fully staffed.

Trey Studstill, the senior executive director of transportation for Paulding County School District in the fast growing northwest suburb of Atlanta, Georgia noted he is not short any monitors.

“As a matter of fact, with 104 monitors at the moment, we’re putting a big push on to hire even more,” he relayed last month “Our special needs routes are fully staffed, and we would never delete monitor positions as a cost cutting measure.“I’ve been doing this for over 25 years and there are good days and bad days for attendance, with certain times of the year worse than others,” Studstill continued. “A little over a year ago, 50 of our monitor positions became dedicated to general education runs. And we could use more, so as budget money frees up, we’ll continue to expand that program. A monitor truly does play a big part in driver satisfaction when they have an extra adult on board to deal with some of the more challenging students.”

As for monitor or driver retention, Studstill noted, “Like with any profession, there are always people who find that their skill set doesn’t serve their job and they’ll admit that they aren’t cut out for it. But for the most part, that’s the exception rather than the rule.”

Kimberly Ellis, transportation director of the nearby Marietta City School District, said that her operation absolutely will use available substitute monitors on regular education routes, when attendance allows it.

“We will put them on a regular education route when there is a new driver so that [the] driver can concentrate on their driving, or when an extra hand with student management is necessary on a tougher route,” she said. “We find that the kids are very responsive to the monitors as well, which is a big plus. ”Both Georgia leaders said that monitors are applying for jobs from word of mouth, although online job postings and job fairs are also bringing in new hires.

“We even have a waiting list of people who want to work for us. We currently have 17 monitor positions with six substitutes,” said Ellis. Alternate transportation company EverDriven says it has seen a 20-percent increase in trips that need monitors from year to year

“Overall, our rate of trips is growing at just over 16 percent per year. As far as the number of students that require a monitor, that has grown over 25 percent, while the growth rate of overall students is 22 percent,” said company CEO Mitch Bowling. “To put those numbers in context, the need for monitors is on the upswing.”EverDriven has over 6,000 contracted drivers nation-wide, and while not every vehicle has an extra adult monitor on board, one is always on duty with students who require one via their Individualized Education Program.

“We see ourselves as complementary to school districts, helping them with their various transportation challenges,” he continued. “Currently, we’re in 27 states and our business is growing, which I think may be because of our rigorous vetting and training for our employees. We have very high standards and online courses for our drivers and monitors. We certify them through our Safe Ride Standard Training, and also have mandatory drug testing for drivers and monitors. Our vehicles are also held to a very high standard of excellence as well. Our goal is to give every student the opportunity to succeed.”

Making the Most of Monitors

Launi Harden, a retired transportation administrator turned consultant, shared wisdom from her years in the industry. “I used to meet with the special education department once a month and spoke often with them about transportation to make sure that we were included in every training that they had. We also made sure that their training included our drivers as well as our attendants,” she said. “Another policy I instituted was to have the special education team be responsible for the attendants. Too often, the transportation attendants were being ignored. Now, the special education department didn’t pay our attendants, but in my opinion, the attendant was their responsibility because it is the student that needs them, and that attendant is necessary to their child’s need for safety under [the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act].”

Harden, who is also a tenured faculty member of the National Conference on Transporting Students with Disabilities & Special Needs, mentioned that the special education department picked up the tab for the transportation department’s special needs coordinator for a couple years, when there was extra money in their budget. “What a blessing that was for a couple of years,” Harden said. “I also really appreciated the people that the Special Education department sent to transportation for our training. They were super helpful in educating both the monitors and the drivers. I asked if the drivers could attend the trainings if there was enough room, and they always obliged. That way, everyone was trained to the same standards.”

Another way that Harden managed the monitors and drivers to the best advantage was to offer monitor positions to driver trainees. “Since it takes weeks to get a CDL, if a trainee had another job and couldn’t afford to quit during driver training, the time to get their CDL might be even longer. By offering them a job as an attendant and training them to drive in between shifts, it was a benefit to them and the department,” she recalled. “They learn a lot being out on routes without actually being behind the wheel. Once in a while, my department would have a person who had signed on to train as a driver who wanted to stay as an attendant, and that was fine. I felt that we retained more employees that way. Not everyone is cut out to be a driver. And on the flip side of that coin, there are attendants who see what the drivers do and want to drive instead of ride.”

However, when a driver didn’t pass a fit-for-duty test, Harden did not allow that driver to just step into an attendant position. “I felt it was wrong to do that,” Harden explained. “We want to do what is best for the students, not what is best for the driver or attendant. If they can’t get a child out of the bus as a driver, then they certainly can’t do it as an attendant, either.”There wasn’t random drug testing of monitors in Harden’s district, but they were tested if they were injured, if there was reasonable suspicion, and when they were hired on. Only CDL employees were in the drug testing pool.

Harden also complimented her pool of monitors by having her non-CDL staff trained to go out on a bus and be an attendant. “There were times during odd hours when we just didn’t have anybody for, say, thirty minutes to run a child home,” she explained. “To overcome that problem, I talked to the special education staff to see if they had people who could work that short period and I put that money into their budget. We were restricted in the number of hours that our monitors could put in, they weren’t allowed overtime. Going right to the school, we taught classroom employees how to do straps and securements right there for those short trips.”

She also stressed the importance of having brush-up securement trainings for employees. “Proper use of securements is easily forgotten, unless someone does them every day,” Harden said. “You can teach a wheelchair securement class once a year, but if you don’t practice it, you don’t remember how to do it properly months later. I’ve seen straps wrapped and tucked and hidden in places where they don’t belong when a person doesn’t know or remember to do it.”

The last item Harden mentioned was the need for proper written documentation of problems on the bus. “Those papers need to be submitted for evaluation and to find the antecedent to the problem if there is a student having trouble on the bus,” she concluded. “There could be a sensitivity to noise or other issue that needs solving to prevent that issue from becoming worse.”

Editor’s Note: As reprinted in the July 2023 issue of School Transportation News.

Related: New York School Bus Monitor Dies After Crash
Related: Florida School Bus Monitor Charged with Child Abuse
Related: Seeing Clearly During a Driver Shortage
Related: Unforeseen Liability: The Impact of Transportation Personnel Shortages

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