A special investigative report that aired in December on television station Queen City News in Charlotte, North Carolina, detailed a 2018 incident in neaby Chesterfield County, South Carolina, when a nonverbal autistic child was attacked 96 times by one boy on a school bus ride.
Upon arriving home, her parents — noting numerous bruises and bite marks — took her to the emergency room and sent photos to their daughter’s teacher.
A subsequent law enforcement investigation including a review of onboard school bus camera footage led to the substitute school bus driver being charged with one count of unlawful neglect of a child.
A Chesterfield County grand jury indicted him, but the charges were ultimately dismissed by a Fourth Circuit deputy solicitor 18 days before the girl’s parents reached a $2.2 million settlement with the school district, bus driver and the South Carolina Department of Education in October.
“It is the goal of the Chesterfield County School District to ensure all schools are safe and all students are growing,” noted Chan Anderson, Ed.D, the new Chesterfield County School District superintendent. “This includes continuing to take measures that will increase the safety and well-being of all stakeholders involved in the transportation entity of our school district. This does not include making comments concerning litigation, including matters involving specific students, whose rights are protected by federal law.”
The previous superintendent, Harrison Goodwin, left Chesterfield County shortly after the incident and is now the superintendent at nearby Kershaw County School District. School Transportation News left several messages with Goodwin seeking comment, but he did not respond.
In a deposition, sections of which were aired during the news report last month, Goodwin admits to knowing about behavior issues on special needs routes prior to the incident. When asked if the district should add attendants to these routes, he suggested a cost analysis be performed. But no such analysis occurred. Meanwhile, a South Carolina Department of Education school bus driver trainer made repeated inquiries with the school district’s then director of special education regarding complaints about no attendants on these buses.
Systemic Change Needed
“One child being abused is one child too many,” commented Linda F. Bluth, Ed.D., an expert witness, tenured faculty of the Transporting Students with Disabilities and Special Needs National Conference, and Hall of Fame member of National Association for Pupil Transportation as well as a past president.
Bluth’s thoughts about seeing the South Carolina news video are as follows. “It was a horrific incident to review. As a special education and transportation advocate for children with disabilities and expert witness, this incident was overwhelmingly difficult to watch,” she said.
Even more unfortunate, she added, is “this is far from an isolated incident. The school district, and more specifically the driver, failed this child’s safety miserably. The driver was observingly negligent in managing the safety of the children under his supervision.”
Statement from NAPT:
The National Association for Pupil Transportation® (NAPT®) knows that Job #1 for every school bus driver or attendant is the same: ensuring the safety of the children on their school bus. That applies to all students, including students with special needs. In the case of students with special needs, the conditions of their transportation are defined further by their Individualized Education Program (IEP) or accommodations under Section 504 [of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973] and other federal or state requirements.
The school transportation community focuses in significant ways on identifying ways in which we can constantly improve safety for our children, and we take even more focused efforts when it relates to transporting students with disabling conditions and other needs. For instance, our association conducts an entire curriculum for transportation managers on special education laws and regulations along with technologies and best practices applicable to that transportation.
NAPT® encourages all school districts and school bus operators to participate in training and education to keep current and to be frequently refreshed on such information, technology, and best practices. We also review situations such as this in Chesterfield, South Carolina, for ways to strengthen our training not only for managers but also for the front-line team of drivers and attendants.
We are also attentive to student behavior management issues and have developed training in this area to help administrators set effective policies and to help drivers deal with behavior issues on their buses.
Bullying also is a factor on many school buses (including the Chesterfield case). Drivers need tools for dealing with bullying on their routes and they need support from school leaders in addressing it systemically through appropriate discipline.
What happened in the Chesterfield school district was tragic for the student involved. As an association, we are not intimately aware of or involved with the legal details of the case. Accordingly, we need to avoid any judgments of any kind about the driver or the district. However, we are both interested in and committed to identifying elements of this series of events that we can glean new lessons from and help local school leaders put sound policies and practices into place. Those efforts are also intended to enable other school bus drivers and attendants to do an even better job of keeping all children safe, which is “Job #1.”
Following the incident, South Carolina State Rep. Richard Yow of District 53 — encompassing Chesterfield, Darlington and Lancaster Counties — drafted two bills.
H3067 requires attendants on any bus transporting special needs students. A second bill, H3291, makes the school bus a “long arm extension” from the classroom, Yow said, adding “if you’ve got a child with severe health issues that could be dangerous for the child, the driver must be made aware of that type of situation so that if something were to happen, they would know how to react and extend lifesaving measures to that child.”
Bluth shared there are multiple lessons to be learned from the incident.
“It is essential that school districts immediately take action to correct dangerous behaviors observed on a school bus,” she said. “There is much for school districts and their transportation departments to learn from the incident. There’s a lot of preventative work to be done.”
As an expert witness, she reported that far too often, repetitive inappropriate behavior on a school bus is not reported or rectified timely, an area needing improvement.
Bluth commented that from her perspective, “there should always be appropriate supervision on a special needs bus or alternative allowable vehicle when children with disabilities require specialized services.”
Non-verbal children are especially vulnerable and often require closer supervision to be provided a safe ride, she noted, adding that this matter should be discussed at a child’s individualized education program (IEP) meeting and that individualized needs should be shared with the transportation department, including the driver and attendant.
Bluth said the special education and transportation community has a responsibility to understand the characteristics of all children transported to best ensure school bus safety. She strongly remarked it is a key misjudgment to underestimate the complexity of daily transportation safety challenges in order to properly transport children with disabilities.
“A driver is responsible for safely negotiating the road while the children being transported are behind the driver,” she said. “This reality supports the need for well-trained attendants knowledgeable and skilled to supervise and support safety during transport.”
The 2015 National School Transportation Specifications and Procedures section on drivers and attendants advises, “As direct service providers to students with disabilities, drivers and attendants have a hands-on responsibility to provide safe and appropriate transportation to students with disabilities, including operation of special equipment, management of student behavior and basic first aid, as necessary.”
The IEP details the care, training and necessary qualifications for those who will carry out the plan and specifies and provides the transportation department with the information on the student’s current medical, health or behavioral status, among other factors.
Bluth shared that transporting children with disabilities is a challenging responsibility and requires all transportation personnel to be knowledgeable and trained about the challenges associated with safe transportation, including drivers, attendants and substitute personnel.
“Appropriate driver, attendant and substitute driver and attendant training is instrumental in order to provide a safe ride,” she added.
The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) allows for sharing of all “legitimate” information with the transportation department, including drivers, attendants and substitute personnel to provide safe transportation, said Bluth.
A recent SpecialEd Connection article published by LRP Publications reported that “the bullying of a student with a disability, regardless of whether it is disability-related, may trigger specific obligations for school districts under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), such as the obligation to revise the student’s IEP or reevaluate the student to determine whether he requires additional services.”
“The IDEA doesn’t require that every school vehicle transporting children with disabilities have an attendant. It requires that IEPs address this need,” added Bluth, who has written extensively on this topic.
On the preventive side, she added, “It is crucial to observe and listen to driver issues and concerns regarding the provision of a safe ride.”
More than once, Bluth said a school bus driver has shared with her that they stopped writing up behavior incident reports because school administrators fail to listen and assist in resolving serious behavioral issues.
“This concern is not atypical,” she added.
To avoid incidents such as what happened in South Carolina, Jeffrey Cassell of the School Bus Safety Company said the student transportation industry needs nationwide “comprehensive training and being held to the highest standards.”
Cassell founded and runs the company, which provides school bus driver training programs, including a comprehensive training course for drivers who transport students with special needs.
Such programs, shared by special education departments with school bus drivers and their attendants, provide the necessary tools to manage behavior and other issues, he noted.
He said he would grade most districts a “six or seven” in meeting the National School Transportation Specifications and Procedures manual criteria with some at the bottom and some at the top.
Cassell explained that years ago, students with special needs were treated with far less dignity and then laws came into place integrating children with special needs with other students in the classroom and on the bus.
“We have mixed buses where there would be two or three children with special needs and 40 without special needs. We transport them together. There’s a lot of good logic for doing that,” he said.
Cassell added that he believes buses predominantly for children with special needs should have attendants on board and that only properly trained substitute drivers should be utilized on buses for children with special needs.
In the South Carolina incident, Cassell noted that while the driver indicated he never knew what was going on behind him, “If you watch the video, he’s consoling the girl. He was shouting in the mirror for the boy to stop doing what he was doing.
“The bus driver knew something was going on and didn’t deal with it. In this case, the fact that they knew that this child had anger problems and didn’t communicate to the drivers is unforgivable.”
Cassell said some students should be placed in the front of the bus next to the driver, whether it’s the bully or the one being bullied.
“If that kid was doing the bullying, if his actions could not be controlled and under his IEP, if he has to be restrained. In this case, one is a four-year-old who gets beaten up repeatedly. That’s beyond reasonableness,” he continued.
“Some children we have to transport with special needs throw temper tantrums, spit at people, try to scratch you, and those are real challenging people to transport.”
Cassell said the School Bus Safety Company teaches in its extensive course on transporting children with special needs that, “If you even suspect that something may be taking place, you stop in the lanes if you have to, put your emergency flashers on, and go deal with it.”
He estimated only half of buses transporting students with special needs have attendants.
“It’s all a question of cost,” he commented. “How can you put a cost on the life of the child? You do put a cost on what you have to do, because where is the money going to come from — higher taxes, less to pay the teachers or taking school buses away. There are cost returns on everything.”
Alternatives to school bus transportation from companies such as EverDriven focus on transporting only one to a few children at a time, Cassell noted.
“If you get a big school bus and have to transport 40 kids and four of them have wheelchairs, it takes about 10 minutes to load and secure a wheelchair correctly,” he said. “That’s 40 minutes added to the journey for the other kids. Now there is this alternative [to] school bus transportation where they have retired people and others using cars, small trucks and small vans to transport these children. In this case, we don’t have this potential problem.”
SPED Safe provides high-quality professional development opportunities for EverDriven drivers as well as school district-employed bus drivers, monitors/aides, dispatchers, management, and other district staff on a variety of topics to improve the overall service and safety, noted Paul Lavigne, managing partner and a special education director in Southern California.
Related: Relying on Video to Identify Onboard Cases of School Bus Bullying
Related: TSD Conference Keynote Addresses Bullying in Schools, Buses
Related: TSD Keynote Addresses Avoidance of Legal Hotspots
Evidence-based content specific to the needs of students with disabilities is delivered through a diverse team of practitioners and leaders in education and law enforcement.
While the South Carolina incident is disconcerting to those in the industry, Bluth noted: “Let’s not forget how much is done correctly each and every day though uncompromisingly working to assure safe transportation for our most vulnerable student population.”
“The only person in life that you ever give your child to trust them turn around and walk away is a school bus driver. They have the highest level of trust,” he said. “Overall, school buses do a fantastic job. They’re not perfect. But the job they do is unbelievable. Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Everything should be improved and when something like this happens, we should find a way of using it to help so it doesn’t happen anywhere else in the industry.”