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Seat Harness on School Bus: Safety Device or Restraint?

04/05/10
by Wrightslaw

I’m hopping mad!  I have 6-year-old twins, one is autistic & verbal, the other bi-polar.  The bus driver uses regular seat belts for them unless (on rare occasions) they act out – with my permission to use the safety harness vests at her discretion.

Now, the bus driver has been chastised by her supervisor and informed that she must use the harnesses every day, no matter what, even when no problems arise.

My children have no physical limitations which would require such harnesses be used for positioning or general safety. The supervisor is using the harnesses as physical restraint for controlling a persons behavior.  Can they legally do this?

You need to pick your battles. This may be a battle you need to pick. However, you need to be very matter of fact about this issue.  If you come across as “hopping mad,” you are likely to lose credibility in the eyes of people who have the power to help.

There is a reason why the supervisor is taking this action now. No one has been injured yet. Is the supervisor afraid that your children will be injured, or that another student will be injured by them? If a student is injured, is the supervisor afraid that you or other parents will sue the school because the children should have been restrained?

What are the criteria for who wears a seat belt v. who wears a harness or a vest? Who makes these decisions?

If you decide to pursue this, you need to gather information and document the facts to build your case.  Be sure you can provide answers to these questions:

  • Do your children ride a regular yellow school bus with children who do not have disabilities?
  • Do they ride a specially equipped bus?
  • What are the vests like?
  • How do they work?
  • Do you have a photo of a child wearing a vest?
  • If this is a harness, how does it work?    (“vest” doesn’t sound like a form of restraint)

As a first step, write a letter to the higher ups in your school district. This differs from place to place – special education director, superintendent, school board chair? Request a copy of the written policy about students wearing vests or harnesses on the bus. You specifically want information about:

  • what circumstances trigger this decision
  • who makes the decision
  • how long the harness must be worn if there are no behavior problems

Check information on child passenger safety restraints in school buses at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Find out what NHTSA says about child restraint systems on school buses that have special compatibility requirements and installation as well as personnel training.  Safety vests and/or harnesses generally require special straps that wrap directly on the back of school bus seat.  NHTSA warns that the seat immediately behind should be vacant or the occupant restrained by a safety belt or other CRS.

As you gather information to build your case, remember to keep your emotions under control.

You will also need to keep in mind that administrators usually support their staff, even when their staff show poor judgment. This is easier for them because they have personal relationships with their staff and can make excuses for their inappropriate behavior (this is the same everywhere, not just in schools).

You may recall an incident several years ago that is a good example of how misplaced administrative support can play out. Teachers decide a good learning tool is to tell elementary students that a gunman is on a shooting rampage during a class trip. “Teachers stage fake gunman attack” http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/18645623/

Many of these children thought they were about to be killed. Reaction:  “WHAT were they thinking? The assistant principal led this trip? Where do they find these people? Some people will lose their jobs over this.”

But, no! What was the principal’s response?

Principal Catherine Stephens declined to say whether the staff members involved would face disciplinary action, but said the situation “involved poor judgment”.

So stay cool, gather information, document the facts, and make calm, clear written requests to the school.

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6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Jenny 10/04/12 at 7:31 pm

    Check your laws. My son rides a special needs bus (I also drive one) and my son rides with a different driver in the a.m. And me in the p.m. I gave the school my permission to use and E-Z on harness and without that permission in his IEP they cannot use it, and the bus company won’t either. Yesterday my son almost hung himself in one though and I told the school they cannot use it anymore, they bill MA for every student on that bus and can provide an aide. I have agreed to try a smaller one that actually fits snugly since the other one was burgundy and HUGE. Also, check the manufactor date, the one they had my son in is 12 years old. They expire after 5 years.

  • 2 Mary 05/15/11 at 11:51 pm

    I’m advocating for a mostly nonverbal an 8 y/o with Downs, in WA. District is putting a harness as an aversive measure into the IEP, against parent’s wishes, and refusing to provide bus aide, on a special needs bus, equipped. w. cameras and lap/shoulder belts. They say it will only be used if she refuses to stay seated. In past harness upset child, left red marks, seemed tight. Can we prevail in hearing that if there is a harness, they need an aide anyway?!! Mom is driving rather than agree to harness / restraint. Ideas? IEP team argued against FBA/BIP on grounds that the wiggly behavior happens so rarely, they can’t really observe it/ take data, to craft a plan.

  • 3 Elena 03/03/11 at 11:16 am

    I have a three year old starting a public school blended grant program this month. The special education van has vest type harnesses, and they have reason to believe (high activity level/elopement/escape risk) she will attempt to leave her five point harness.

    I consider, per definition, the device to be a restraint, and necessitating the need for an aide on the bus, since the driver, naturally, should be monitoring the road and not 5-10 other preschoolers of varying ability and need. Also, since seatbelts for non-disabled passengers are designed to be quick/self release, and we are proposing to make removal of one’sself impossible, the additional monitoring would naturally be required, in event of an emergency, or if the bus driver is unable to do so. Are there regulations governing the use of transportation aides?

  • 4 Mike 04/19/10 at 2:24 pm

    Special transportation factors such as use of a car seat, belt, special belt/vest are often listed in an IEP or 504 plan (which I assume your children have). The equipment and when it is used should be clearly stated. If it is used as a behavioral or safety consequence and occurs frequently, your child should probably have a Functional Behavior Assessment and a Behavior Intervention Plan with the IEP. BIPs apply to all school settings including the bus, so if you are worried about when those vests are used, perhaps you should request an evaluation to establish an FBA/BIP.

    I have to agree that you should pick your battle carefully and be polite with your concerns when addressing the school and transportation department.

  • 5 Barbara 04/16/10 at 5:10 pm

    When my son transitioned from a bus for special ed students to one for regular students we were blessed with a wonderful driver. She had seat belts but no harness on her bus and felt at age 8 my son was getting to old/big for the harness. Because physical injury was not an issue, she enlisted the help of several other children she’d noticed had been kind to my son. They were his ‘bus buddy’ and would occupy the aisle portion of the seat, visit with him on the trip, and remind him to remain seated if he tried to rise. They sat at the front of the bus close to the driver so she would know if problems developed. After years of being ignored at school, it was uplifting to see kids arguing over whose turn it was to share the seat with my son because they all wanted to do it. And from the bus buddies he made two real friends.

  • 6 Jeanette 04/08/10 at 12:33 pm

    When my child was younger and rode the bus it was not only for his safety but for all involved. They did not have an aide on the bus so it was just the bus driver. If there is a chance that they could distract the driver then why put others at risk by having the driver distracted. The harness is not uncomfortable. It can save lives if the bus driver is distracted and crashes into something or another car. I am for the harness myself but that is just my feelings. I do not speak for you or your child. I do think that you need to sit down and think about everyone involved and not just you or your child.
    Jeanette