Seat Harness on School Bus: Safety Device or Restraint?

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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”

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 … 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.

  1. We are not allowed to use a Harness or car seat unless it is required in the students IEP, which is agreed upon by the parents. If a child sits in a seat with a seat belt, they are required to wear it.

  2. I take care of a 12 year old student on a school bus who basically can be harmful to himself and others and I have a extremely hard time keeping him in his harness he cont nu uly friends a way to get out of it what can I do?

    • I suggest going that you share this situation, and concerns in writing with the bus director, campus principal, & district special ed director. Request that help be provided to you and the driver to develop a plan to deal with this.

  3. seriously! when a parent writes in to your website about a huge concern and they feel like some type of violation has taken place against their children, don’t expect them to “BE CALM AND NOT BE HOPPING MAD”. It is appalling that all of those persons that “help” with special needs children always want the parents who are commonly wronged, misinformed, misled, lied to and down right not treated with their rights for their children need to “BE CALM” put yourself in our spot for once and let it get to that point where no one listens and everyone doesn’t have a clue about your child(dren).!!! Parents stay firm and educate yourselves and never stop trying for your kids.

  4. I have a nephew who is autistic and went to the school with his parents to pick him from school and I spoke to his teacher and bus driver that the harness is a safety issue
    because if the bus is in an accident whiplash can occur and if there was a fire he would trapped I would know this because i had to wear one as a kid and I have firefighter training through the CERT program

  5. As we speak my son is 5 1/2 and is a harness. I believe in a booster seat. The were telling me today that they think he is out growing it. They are going to upgrade him if needed. I am totally ok with them doing what they think it best. I would rather him be more restrained than less. My ONLY issue is if they used one sort while he was being good and one for when it’s being difficult and if they chose to change him to the one for difficult all the time for no reason. My son is going into a size 7 but fits a 6 now. He’s 54lb. what do you suggest be his best type of belt? I do want something that keeps him there because though he’s good more the time he has his moments. He’s not a SE bus.

  6. It seems that the most important points have been missed. It sounds like the child is on an Individual Education Program. This document should be updated yearly and should include the plan for use of any type of restraint or other device. Transportation on a school bus is a “related service” specifically mentioned in IDEA. No restraint other than those worn by all students (standard seat belts) should ever be used on a child unless the child’s IEP authorizes its use.

  7. Thank you for the issue of harnesses being used on bus. My nine year old grandson and daughter are going through this problem right now with a school bus and yes you’re right, the administrators will protect their staff. The bus driver made the decision to put a harness on him, no reason given for this action. She (the bus driver)has been caught in, for a no better word, lies. Yet they continue to support the bus driver. Your article will help me in going over the bus company and to the school board. Thank you

  8. Can you tell me where I can get a video on school bus special needs type of restraints for training.Thanks

  9. Can you give me information or tell me where to find information on laws that regulate the use of a harness (safety vest) for transporting Developmentally Disabled Adults to and from work programs. Thank You!

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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?

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

  15. 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.

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