Missouri School Bus Driver Training Emphasizes Situational Awareness, Communication Skills

Location: Missouri By Becky Lewis Published June 2016

First stop. “Hey Mr. B, hot one today!” “Sure is, finally warm enough for those shorts you boys wore all winter!”

Second stop. There they are, more yelling, giggling youngsters in shorts and flip-flops. Third stop. And here’s more of the same, marked by the high spirits that indicate the school year is almost over.

Fourth stop…wait a sec. A hoodie? Sweats? He wore shorts when it was below freezing. And what’s up with the second backpack?…What did they say in that training we had last fall, JDLR…somebody or something that Just Doesn’t Look Right, that’s it…I’m going to roll right on by, and I’m going to call in.

According to the American School Bus Council, some 480,000 school buses transport 26 million children to school every day, yet few school systems train their drivers on what to do if an intruder enters their bus, says Gary Moore, safety coordinator at the Missouri Center for Education Safety. In the aftermath of the December 2012 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary and a January 2013 incident in rural Alabama where a bus driver was killed and a child taken hostage, Moore was tasked with developing a safety training program for school bus drivers; he has since presented it more than 150 times in the past three years in 12 states and Canada. Initially offered free of charge to schools in Missouri under a U.S. Department of Homeland Security grant, the Center continues to offer the training throughout the state at a low fee. And although jurisdictions in some other states have been willing to pay the fee to have Moore make the presentation, he also willingly shares his slides and talking points at no charge, allowing other agencies to create their own training programs.

Moore says he didn’t “invent anything new;” rather, he applied knowledge gained during his 34 years in law enforcement (29 as a member of the Missouri Highway Patrol) to school bus safety. He worked with the sheriff’s department in Dale County, Ala., where the hostage situation took place while developing the training, which covers the basic rules of safety, the importance of good communication and dealing with a physical altercation.

“I hear from the drivers that ‘JDLR’ sticks in their heads,” Moore says. “Anything that strikes you as out of your range of normal becomes a JDLR. It could be somebody wearing inappropriate clothing or carrying a strange object. When you see it, you need to act on it and report it.”

In addition to emphasizing JDLR awareness, Moore focuses on the importance of good communication: “If I only had time to talk about one topic, it would be communication. Good skills defuse problems, poor skills only escalate them.”

If a driver is confronted by an angry parent or student (a more likely scenario than facing an active threat), it is important to listen actively and look engaged while not interrupting, then paraphrase some of the individual’s statements in a response, Moore says, noting that the vast majority of physical altercations start with a verbal confrontation. In the event an altercation does become physical, he says, it’s important to be able to get out of your seat, and don’t hesitate to use anything at your disposal as a weapon: a fire extinguisher, wasp spray, the bus itself.

In addition to covering those topics in more depth, the Missouri training also presents the following Basic Rules of School Bus Safety:

  • Never let any unauthorized person on the bus, unless there is a need to assist a student on or off the bus.
  • Never allow a stranger to get onto the bus.
  • Conduct all communication at the driver’s window; if necessary for safety, advise the individual that the conversation needs to be moved to the school or bus transportation office.

And just like with any other training, the best way to be sure all of this kicks in in the event of an emergency is to practice, practice, practice. Moore says school districts should run appropriate drills more than once a year, and that local law enforcement needs to be involved in training events: “Every local law enforcement agency has its own way of doing things. Training needs to focus on including their procedures.”

One drill that drivers can implement on their own, though, is conducting a personal inspection to make sure the brakes and the emergency exit work properly prior every single time they start their bus.

“I don’t care if they’ve only been parked somewhere for an hour, they need to check those two things, which can be tampered with so easily. I try to emphasize that during the training, and I hear feedback from safety directors that they’ve seen their drivers doing this,” Moore says. “When I spoke at the Missouri State Emergency Management Conference last year, a member of the audience stood up and said ‘after you provided training in our area, it had a profound effect on how the drivers do their business. What you’re doing is working.’ ”

In addition to emphasizing the need for training, Moore also emphasizes the need for school districts to have formal written policies regarding intrusion onto buses. Missouri has enacted a statute backing up such written policies, as did Alabama in the wake of the 2013 hostage situation.

“For whatever the reason may be, safety and training for our school buses have been ignored too long. I never gave it much thought as a trooper, but providing this training has raised my awareness,” Moore says. “Sometimes drivers think ‘I’m just a bus driver,’ but they have the lives of our children in their hands.”