Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Is Your Nonverbal Child Safe on the School Bus?

by Sharon Gretz, M.Ed.

[April 14, 2013:  Unfortunately, it keeps occurring.  Today we learn of 3 year old Elliott from Minnesota, who has childhood apraxia of speech, and never made it to school.  His mom thought he was playing and learning but he never made it and when he did not arrive at home on the bus and she called the school, the school said he had not been there. He was found 4 hours later still strapped in the bus in the bus terminal.  We are so grateful that Elliott is safe. Please read the article below and consider what you can do for your child or in your school district to make sure this doesn't happen!]

Two weeks ago we learned of a very disturbing story via the internet about a four year old girl with childhood apraxia of speech who was left unattended and forgotten on her school bus for over three hours. Little blond Ava was unable to yell out for help. Despite school district bus safety policies and procedures, the bus driver allegedly failed to do the seat by seat check that would have located Ava in the rear of the bus. An investigation ensued and shortly thereafter the bus driver resigned.

Ava’s family would like the Apraxia-KIDS community to understand how important it is to ask questions about your school’s bus safety procedures and to ask for a written copy. No one thinks that this can happen to their child, however, on the CASANA facebook page a number of parents are reporting similar stories about their child being placed in unsafe situations. For example, one boy was driven past his bus stop but could not tell the bus driver and was taken back to the school before he was noticed. Another child was crying on his bus but since the school bus driver did not understand his communication, no one knew why or what had happened. And tragically, a similar story occurred a decade ago to another little boy who was left on the bus in the bus garage for hours. On a brighter note, parents on our Facebook page also discussed safety procedures that are in place for their child who is nonverbal or limited verbal.

So the bottom line is this: What can parents to do best protect their child with limited intelligible speech?
  1. Make sure that your school district has bus safety procedures in writing and assure that you get a copy of the policy.
  2. Inquire about whether your child’s bus driver has had special needs training. Arrange a meeting between school administration and your child’s bus driver to discuss your son or daughter’s communication needs.
  3. Include travel safety and transportation details as part of your child’s I.E.P. Transportation is considered a “related service” and so specific transportation details can and should be included when the IEP team has agreed to include transportation for your child. A transportation plan would be a tremendous addition to the IEPs of children who are unintelligible or nonverbal.
  4. Communication goals at school and at home should include self protection and self identification goals. Children with communication challenges need a way or need practice with skills such as calling for help (“Help Me”); how to gain someone’s attention (“Hey you!” “Wait!”). These phrases can be incorporated into speech targets or augmentative communication.
Having a child left alone for hours on a bus is easily every parent’s nightmare but is particularly disturbing if the parent is already concerned about a child’s ability to speak out. Careful planning and team work are essential to assure the protection of all, but most of all for the child. 

If you are a parent, do not let your concerns and worries be pushed aside. If you are an educator, be an advocate to make sure that children with no or little speech are kept safe!  For a guide designed for both parents and educators, please read An Overview of Special Education Transportation:A Primer for Parents and Educators.


  1. Thank you Sharon for writing this article. I'm going to share it with my son's teachers and with the bus company.

    It's so great that you can provide resources for us parents to help us advocate for our children. You are an asset to so many of us.

    ~Kyle's Mom

  2. My boys were completely nonverbal the first year they were in preschool (developmental delay prek at the public school) and I worried about this all the time. I also worried about what would happen if there was an accident, because my kids couldn't even say their name to emergency personnel. The special ed buses here have at least one aide on board always, and the bus driver had a system to keep track of the kids (they still have that driver, I'm so glad cause she's really on the ball). She took pictures of each kid on her route the first day of school and then printed them out on a sign with their full name, and on the back was their parents' name and phone number and their teacher's name and classroom number. Then she put that into a plastic sleeve with a magnet on the back and put it on the wall of the bus above the child's seat. That way in case of an emergency, all the EMTs would have to do is grab the signs and everyone could be accounted for, even if they were nonverbal. I thought it was very smart.

    My boys are verbal now, but they do still clam up when they're stressed, so I still worry about them being forgotten on a bus, but as they get older it's less terrifying to me. I was just brokenhearted for that poor little girl when I first read the article. The bus driver lost his/her job over it, I've heard.

  3. Thank you for this article, which prompted me to contact my district's school bus company and get in writing their safety procedures and special needs training.

  4. My son has verbal apraxia. When my son was in preschool he was sexual assaulted on the school bus by a teenager. My son was assigned to #1 and/or #2 seat on the bus. This was a verbal agreement between the bus driver and I in which the school said was enough to have. He went to #3 seat that day when a teenage boy pursuaded him to sit in his seat. The bus driver didnt protect my son. MAKE SURE you have a firm WRITTEN agreement with your bus driver. Maybe then the bus driver will make sure he or she protect your child. I thought I had a strong verbal agreement with our bus driver-I was wrong.