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Child passenger safety technicians play a large role in ensuring safety during special needs routes

Becoming a certified passenger safety technician (CPST) isn’t an easy task. But transportation officials and instructors said that it is beneficial to have at least one credentialed employee on staff, despite the necessary time and resource allocations.

Techs allow departments to be more aware of securing various types of child safety restraint systems (CSRS) in school buses, while also being sure to accommodate students who have special needs, plus preschool-aged students.

To become a CPST, an individual must complete a 32-hour course that details how to secure children in all kinds of vehicles and using all kinds of CSRS. While the 32-hour course focuses primarily on private vehicles, vans and cars, it includes the principles of occupant protection, and how all of the pieces and parts work together to ensure proper safety.

An additional eight-hour course, which is approved by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), is specialty training that is designed to teach school transportation professionals how to use child safety restraint systems in the school bus environment.

Where to Find CPSTs in Your Community

In an ideal world, every school district would have a child passenger safety technician (CPST) on staff. However, sometimes the resources aren’t available, or employees aren’t interested in obtaining the certification.

Regardless, opportunities exist to ensure your school district remains up-to-date and trained on the various child safety restraint systems (CSRS).

Denise Donaldson, editor of Side Ride News and a CPST instructor, discussed where transportation directors can find techs and how they can help the district ensure student safety on the school bus.

First, visit http://cert.Safekids.org and click on “Find a Tech.” Filter by zip code, city or state to find technicians in your area. Each tech profile indicates if the individual is also an instructor (meaning they completed the full 32-hour CPST course for passenger vehicles), speaks multiple languages, and if they completed school-bus-specific training. (There is also the option to search by specific criteria.)

Contact information for the tech is also available. Many instructors offer their services free of charge or for a minimal cost.

Once you find the CPST who fits the needs of your district, the tech can come out and check all of the CSRS in your inventory for age, physical condition, and if there are recalls. They can also connect you to resources for replenishing your inventory and training your staff on how to use various CSRS’s.

Donaldson advised that CPSTs can also help districts understand which child safety restraint system they need to purchase.

“Contact a CPST and they can help you with all the configurations,” Donaldson advised. Obtain answers to such questions as: “What’s going to be the easiest [CSRS] for me to use? What’s going to be safe? What’s going to sit on my bus?”

Another search option is to visit the NHTSA website, www.nhtsa.gov, and search the state contacts on child passenger safety. By contacting the state representative, Donaldson said you can determine appropriate options that are located in your area.

The course teaches how to use child safety seats that are designed to be used only in the school bus. For example, only booster seats with built-in harnesses can be used, according to NHTSA.

Sue Shutrump, who helps teach and coordinate the NHTSA school bus training (she also co-wrote the course material), said the vast majority of people who attend are not CPSTs. If they already completed the 32- hour training, the course will certify them to teach the class. However, most participants are driver trainers, monitors, bus drivers, or anyone whose job reasonably includes securing children in CSRS on school buses, such as school district physical therapists.

“Overall, what’s really wonderful [about attending both courses] is that you have a wide knowledge of child passenger safety for children in every type of vehicle,” explained Shutrump, the supervisor of occupational therapy and physical therapy services at Trumbull County Educational Services Center in Niles, Ohio.

Denise Donaldson, another CPST school bus instructor, agreed. She noted that a CPST has received the standardized training that is needed to determine when compartmentalization will work, and when it won’t be as effective, such as when students are seated incorrectly.

“They are going to be plugged into the latest and best practice guidelines and approaches,” said Donaldson, who is also the editor of Safe Ride News, a publication that provides information on choosing and using CSRS and wheelchairs. “They are going to be well-trained on identifying errors and mistakes that are risky. They are going to see very quickly what we are doing here or there that might not be the safest way to do something, and maybe we need to implement a few changes.”

Donaldson noted that while having a CPST on staff is not required, it will help transportation staff with the difficulties of correctly installing the child safety restraints.

“There are lots of extra efforts [that are necessary] to using a child safety restraint system on a bus,” Donald- son noted. “It is ridiculously time-consuming, and in some cases it seems very difficult. Another thing that a CPST can do is make sure the best equipment is being used to accommodate the fastest and easiest way known to them. So, without cutting corners and making things unsafe, here are the things that we can do to make things go better.”

Sargent School District Re-33J in Monte Vista, Colorado, employs a CPST to assist the 12 drivers on staff in ensuring that students are correctly restrained and that the equipment is used as intended.

Director of Transportation Rebecca Sykes said the district has had its tech on staff for about three years. She added that the employment cost is minimal, compared to what the cost would be if injuries resulted from incorrect CSRS usage during a crash or other incident.

“I’m working with my school district to see if we can make [training] more of a requirement [for all staff],” Sykes explained. “Just in case that one person is not available. So that we don’t ever leave ourselves in a situation where we have people without that knowledge available to help.”

In addition to the 32-hour course, CPSTs must be recertified and examined by a lead technician every two years. That time and financial commitment could be difficult for transportation departments to uphold.

Meanwhile, there are additional resources that transportation staff can turn to for help with CSRS training, such as police officers, firefighters, hospital systems and health centers. But having a tech on staff allows for more direct interaction and fosters more district communication.

CPSTs help alleviate risks, which can ensure the safety restraints are secured properly and equipment remains up to date.

“What happens is, when people know how vital it is that preschool-aged children are all put in child safety restraint systems, naturally, it also becomes incumbent on them to talk to administrators, so they know this is what has to be done,” Shutrump said.

She added that CPSTs also help transport younger students with special needs who might be out of preschool— but their small size makes CSRS necessary to keep them in their seats.

“That’s what individualized education programs are about,” Shutrump explained. “That means we have to transport students in the least restrictive environment. But it also has to have all the safety support to make that a safe ride.”

Shutrump explained that the CPSTs need to “know the crash dynamics, the principles of occupant protection, and how child safety restraint systems are supposed to work in other vehicles, so that you can then figure out how to accommodate that child by using a CSRS in the specialized environment of the school bus.”

Techs are also vital to the success of Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, especially when transporting students who have special needs.

The district has 1,800 school bus drivers on staff, with over 500 special needs buses on the road every day. CPSTs serve as the liaison between the CSRS manufacturers and the driving teams.

From left: Marion Haupt, Flor Salazar and Sure White are the CPSTs at Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland.

The district employs two full-time CPSTs, plus one retired part-time tech when needed. Leon Langley, the assistant director of transportation at the district, said he calls his techs “troubleshooters.”

“It is based on the challenges, the variety of restraints, and as we expanded, the number of students identified with special needs. … The need became apparent to have folks who are specialized in this,” Langley explained.

He said the techs also hold training sessions throughout the year, so that bus teams are up to date on CSRS. He added that the techs have their own vehicles with the necessary equipment onboard, and they roam between the various depots to field specific questions from drivers. The Montgomery County techs are also well-versed on using CSRS to safely secure children with behavior issues.

“Every school system has ‘Houdini’s.’ All the safety equipment in the world just won’t keep [some students] safely in their seat,” Langley explained. “These folks are very good at coming up with solutions and working with teams. They are multi-purpose, but really they are troubleshooters.”

Editor’s Note: As reprinted from the March issue of School Transportation News. 

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