by Brian Washington
One of Donna Nielsen’s biggest fears came to life a few days ago more than 800 miles away in Midland City, Alabama, where a gunman stormed a local school bus, shot and killed the driver, and held a 5-year-old student hostage for several days.
Nielsen, who lives in LaPorte, Indiana, located about 50 miles from Chicago, has been a school bus driver for 27 years and has always worried that something like this would happen to her or one of her colleagues.
That’s why, several months before the deadly shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut sparked a national debate about creating safe and secure learning environments for students, Nielsen began hounding her district to pull together a training to help bus drivers prevent and respond to emergency situations.
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“Nothing happened until after Sandy Hook and then everyone immediately started doing everything they could to make things safe and secure for students,” said Nielsen, who believes bus drivers, because of their daily routines, hold key insights about keeping students safe. “They are trained to be observant. They pull into the same entrances everyday. They immediately know if something is out of place or if there’s a person or vehicle there that shouldn’t be.”
The training for bus drivers took place last month and focused on safety awareness and prevention and emergency responses. According to Nielsen, it also underscored a very important point—that education support professionals, the dedicated bus drivers, secretaries, cafeteria workers and custodial staff who work in our public schools, should not be left out of the equation when it comes to school safety.
“We need to educate all of our people,” said Nielsen. “Every person working in a school needs to have input and know the plan. Unfortunately, we don’t always include everybody in that discussion but we need to.”
Nielsen hopes that lawmakers across the country will work with educators—including education support professionals—before passing gun violence prevention legislation. This week, federal lawmakers in the U.S. Senate held a hearing on the matter, but not a single educator appeared before the panel.
However, locally, Nielsen and her colleagues are starting to see some progress. Based on input from bus drivers in her district, lawmakers and local school leaders are looking at marking the roofs of each bus with huge, white numbers so the vehicles can be spotted from the air. There’s also talk of possibly installing “panic buttons” in the future—which would alert dispatch officials that a driver is confronted with an emergency situation while on the road.
She hopes action such as these will help prevent deadly school-related shootings like the one in Alabama, which Nielsen believes demonstrates, once again, just how much educators—including ESPs like Alabama bus driver Charles Albert Poland, Jr.—are willing to sacrifice for students.
“It shows that education support professionals give everything to their students and they will do anything to protect those kids,” said Nielsen. “That is exactly what happened in Alabama. He died protecting his students. How can you get to be a bigger hero than that?”
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