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Teresa Hartley’s experience with school bus evacuations dates back to when she was in middle school.

Hartley, now the transportation director for Iowa’s Mid-Prairie Community School District, was riding a school bus one morning in seventh grade when a car ran a stop sign and barreled into the side of the bus by the passenger door. The impact pushed the bus into a ditch, and it toppled onto its side.

Hartley, who was around 13 at the time, was better prepared to handle the situation than the average student. Her mom was a school bus driver, so Hartley had spent much time around the yellow vehicles and knew, for example, how to use the two-way radio and the emergency exits.

That knowledge proved vital after the crash, when Hartley saw that the school bus driver (not her mom in this case) was initially unresponsive. The middle schooler grabbed the radio and called dispatch about the accident. Then she shepherded the other students out of the bus through an emergency exit.  While the young Hartley clearly handled the situation well, the experience was unsettling and has stayed with her over the years.

“It was traumatic,” Hartley says. “It’s something you’ll never forget.”

Now, during her first year as a transportation director, Hartley launched a district-wide training program to ensure that all students are prepared to respond to a school bus emergency.  “Kids really need to know anything they can about the bus and how to get out of it.”

The urgency of the issue was reinforced in December, when a student and a driver died in a school bus fire on the other side of the state, near Oakland, Iowa.

In Iowa, school districts are required to conduct school bus evacuation drills twice per year. For Mid-Prairie Community School District’s drills this spring, Hartley made big plans.  The key change was to incorporate all of the district’s students in the training, rather than just those who regularly ride the bus.

The training included identifying the emergency air pressure release to open the front service door, how to use the window exits, sitting and “scooting” out the rear emergency exit door, and how to pop open the roof hatches. For the latter part, even the smaller students had their turns — they were allowed to climb up on the seats so they could reach the roof hatch.

“They had to learn to do it themselves,” Hartley says, noting that in some emergency situations, “there’s not going to be an adult there to help them.”

Hartley notes that the expanded evacuation training program was a learning experience not only for students and teachers, but for her and her staff as well.

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