Lessons from the Experts
School districts are regularly assigned responsibility for transporting our nation’s school-age children with and without disabilities to and from school, utilizing school district vehicles and personnel, and/or approved contractor vehicles and personnel. Regardless of the service delivery model selected, it is reasonable to scrutinize if school transportation safety practices are given the attention required to provide a safe ride and to prevent child passenger injury and harm. From my years of experience serving as a school transportation expert witness and consultant, I am convinced that school bus safety practices do not always meet the standards recommended by school transportation industry leaders. Therefore, the possibility of unforeseen school district litigation has increased as a result of misjudging potential liability.
Since 1979, I have served as an expert witness and consultant in over 30 school transportation litigation cases involving children with disabilities. All of these litigation cases represent child-specific catastrophic results. While litigation trends may have changed somewhat over the past three decades, there is a common recurring theme of negligence and gross negligence. Carelessness and inattention to school transportation safety practices is unrecognized by too many school districts. From my years of experience as an expert witness and consultant, failures exist in implementing up-to-date transportation written policies and procedures, negligently hiring drivers and attendants, poorly training drivers and attendants, ineffective in-service training conducted by knowledgeable personnel, and an overwhelming failure to communicate imperative child-specific information which is essential to provide safe transportation.
The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), administered by the United States Department of Education, allows for the sharing of permissible information. It is lawful to disclose information to eligible parties that include school district personnel, contractors, and other parties when outsourcing of services and functions takes place. Understanding FERPA, as it pertains to school transportation, is key to implementing safe transportation. Regrettably, my expert witness work has exposed the fact that knowledge about FERPA is a significant area of deficiency and school district misunderstanding – contributing to negligence and gross negligence. It is absolutely necessary for school districts to better understand the FERPA requirements.
School bus operation safety – on and off the road – including vehicle and equipment maintenance, appropriate hiring practices and personnel training, epitomize areas of repetitive negligence and gross negligence. It is my strong opinion that due diligence to ensure safe transportation to prevent child harm is often unaccounted for and only becomes recognizable when litigation is apparent and pending. While our country is frequently criticized for being a “litigious society,” there is no excuse for any failure to overlook child passenger safety.
Transporting children is a mammoth responsibility and obligation. Persistently I ask myself if school district superintendents, leadership teams and school boards are sufficiently knowledgeable about their responsibility to provide “a duty of care” for children under their supervision during transportation. It is essential that school district leadership and staff fully understand their individual duty of care responsibilities under state or local laws. Duty of care can be defined as “a requirement that a person act toward others and the public with watchfulness, attention, caution and prudence that a reasonable person in circumstances would…” (Copyright © 1981-2005 by Gerald N. Hill and Kathleen T. Hill. All Rights reserved).
Student transportation is one of the most imperative and costly services provided by school districts. It is therefore surprising that more attention is not given to transportation safety practices. Liability is an underestimated reality. Considerable school transportation litigation may be averted if transportation safety would receive the attention and commitment required. Rapidly changing times and demands have not always permitted school districts to adequately address daily transportation challenges. The time is now to initiate a straightforward discussion with all relevant stakeholders about what is working and what must improve in order to enhance school transportation safety.
Our nation’s children deserve our commitment to their well-being and protection to provide a safe ride to and from school. It is our moral responsibility and duty of care.
On August 17, attend NAPT ACTS! “Why is There Litigation in School Transportation? Lessons From the Experts” to learn more about this important topic.
Visit https://attendee.gotowebinar comregister/441040104128112396 to register for the webinar.
Linda F. Bluth, Ed.D. (firstname.lastname@example.org) is one of the nation’s foremost experts on special needs transportation. She currently serves as Special Needs Transportation Consultant for the National Association for Pupil Transportation® (NAPT).
“School transportation is inherently safe, thanks to the transportation professionals leading the industry and the regulations our industry has imposed on itself. When something goes wrong in school transportation, school transportation professionals are the first to fix it – and not only fix it but create rules and best practices to prevent the problem from occurring again.
That said, the school bus is an extension of the classroom. And the classroom has become a somewhat litigious area. As an expert witness, the most common issues I run into deal with lack of consistency in training and missing or deteriorated communication. When a crisis like a pandemic occurs, it can cause some corners to be cut in other areas of education. Those cut corners can unfortunately spill into transportation, resulting in unintended consequences and reductions where safety is at stake.
No one wants to intentionally hurt or neglect a passenger – it is usually an issue with training. When training someone who interacts with students, it is not enough to just say, ‘Oh, they probably get it.’ You must ensure that your training is practiced and consistent, and that no one is cutting corners on safety.
As with everything else in our industry, it comes down to good communication. Maybe you have already told passengers and parents about waiting for the bus during snowstorms, for example, but do not be afraid to over-communicate; repeat critical information every time it snows, and do not assume that people will always remember those best practices.
Lack of information creates a domino effect when something goes wrong. Communication is everything and can prevent an expensive legal action.”
Alexandra H. Robinson, M.Ed., CDPT
A. Robinson Consulting
“In order to be aware of liability exposures, it is important to look at your system holistically. Are you training everyone properly? Mitigating liability is all about training and documentation.
If you are a supervisor, get out of the office and really look at what is happening on your routes. It is also critical to solicit input from drivers about their own safety concerns. Do not view what they are saying as complaints – you need to take those tips and concerns seriously. They are valid concerns, whether being voiced from the transportation or special education departments, and we need to work together.
Always be proactive. When things start to go sideways, it is important for everyone in the office to be aware of the problem. The more people voicing their concerns and opinions means we are much less likely to run into liability issues. If someone is new or not familiar with district policies, it can be very helpful for other team members to share and explain the information.
Fostering good communication and taking ownership when something goes wrong is important. These simple steps can stop problems from snowballing. You must mediate damage before little issues turn into big issues. When people let their guards down, that is when real crises occur.”
Peter Lawrence, Ed.D.
Director of Transportation
Fairport Central School District – Fairport, New York
“I believe that much of the school bus-related litigation arises from drivers interacting with children without adequate preparation and training. For example, in New York, we passed the Dignity for All Students Act which required bus drivers (like other school personnel) to be prepared on issues related to gender equity or discrimination and harassment. Unlike their colleagues in the classroom, drivers usually do not have advanced education degrees that expose them to these issues. As a consequence, when they see changes in behavior among our students, they often do not know how to properly interact or prevent bullying on their buses.
The way to fix that and to prevent similar issues is for transportation professionals to be active partners in their district’s system and then advocate for their drivers and safety teams. Those individuals should be in the same room with teachers when classes on bullying, students with disabilities or other relevant topics are administered. The message must be universal, and our drivers need to be kept in the loop.
Questions to ask ourselves when we think of litigation and liability: What sort of training do we provide drivers on the various categories covered under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)? What do they know about transporting kids with the various IDEA classifications? How do they handle oppositional behavior issues? How well do they handle bullying and inappropriate behavior on their bus?
We provide broad, generic safety training, but we do not yet provide the deep-dive training needed to deal with these issues. We need to consider ALL facets of safety, including physical and emotional, and not just on-the-road safety. Otherwise, we are bound to make the same mistakes. That’s not what we aspire to for our children.”
NAPT Public Policy Committee