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WATERLOO — Bus drivers are getting more practice with their Waterloo Community Schools’ routes ahead of the first day of classes.

And route sheets will provide greater clarity on requirements for the special needs students being transported by drivers.

Durham School Services and the district are working to prepare bus drivers and monitors to begin picking up and dropping off children starting Monday, when classes begin. Some changes in procedure are designed to avoid problems that occurred in early July with kids riding the bus for summer school.

In one case, a 9-year-old girl with special needs was dropped off at her family’s empty home instead of at day care. She was able to get into the home, but apparently walked a mile to the Target store, crossing busy roads, before police found her.

A 6-year-old boy in the other case boarded the wrong school van after class and remained there, unnoticed by the driver, once the route was finished. He was later found unharmed, as well.

Brent Knutson, general manager of Durham’s Waterloo operations, said both drivers were fired for the mistakes. If drivers are following their route sheets, he noted that they should be checking off students as they get on the bus. But if someone does end up on a bus who’s not supposed to be there, procedures are in place to keep the kinds of mistakes that were made from happening.

Still, the problems led to a review of the procedures.

“We did that internally and then we did that with Durham,” said Ivan Gentry, the district’s director of special education. “We care about the safe transportation of our students to and from school and will work diligently to ensure all students’ individual needs are met.”

The 9-year-old girl in the July incident has an individualized education program that specifies she was to be accompanied by an adult while getting on and off the bus, according to an interview at the time with her mother. But the girl boarded the wrong bus and so she was taken home, where no one was waiting to retrieve her, instead of to day care.

“We’ve kind of revamped our procedures to make sure adequate IEP information is being shared,” said Gentry. The bus company, drivers, monitors, any substitutes and school staff will receive consistent communications to clarify instructions for special needs students. “There may have been some confusion in the past.”

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An example, relating to the girl’s case this summer, is service from “door-to-door” rather than “curb-to-curb,” as provided for most students, because of her needs. “So, if we’re saying door-to-door or curb-to-curb, everybody knows what we mean,” noted Gentry.

Another change is that all vehicles in which students are transported will be outfitted with electronic technology to ensure inspections are done after routes are completed. Durham uses Zonar Systems, where drivers carry a device through the bus and scan tags placed in spots from front to back.

“We’ve always had those on the school buses,” said Knutson. Durham has 95 buses for its Waterloo Schools routes. But drivers also use six district-owned vans for some routes.

“We’re getting them installed on the vans. That’s where our issue happened,” he said. The July incident involving the 6-year-old boy happened in a van without one of the systems.

On Tuesday, the more than 100 bus drivers and monitors employed by Durham attended presentations at the Waterloo Center for the Arts. They learned or reviewed behavior expectations and the basics about building relationships with the students on their bus. The group will meet monthly for presentations on various topics.

Since Wednesday, they’ve been running through the routes they will drive.

“We’re doing more this year,” said Knutson. “They have to do it three days in a row.”

Routes and related procedures were practiced Wednesday throughout the day and will be again Friday. Today, Knutson said drivers were “stress tested” on the 74 routes that will run, taking out buses at the time they will be starting next week. Drivers were to bring back their own observations about road conditions, from traffic flow to train schedules, and bus concerns, like whether all their cameras are in working order.

Crisis prevention and intervention – essentially making sure kids feel safe – is “one of the things that we’re really, really working on,” Gentry told bus drivers and monitors Tuesday. He said they are just as important to that process as teachers and other staff in the buildings.

Professional educators, at their core, “just help kids,” he said. “I count you as professional educators.”

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