WARREN, NJ - Not surprisingly, school bus drivers must pass rigorous skills and knowledge testing, hold a commercial driver’s license, and meet vision, hearing, and other requirements. For van drivers and bus aides in the Warren Township School District, there is additional training that takes a somewhat unexpected, yet important, step further.

“This is the sign for ‘sit,’” said Supervisor of Special Education Shannon Sharkey as she instructed a small gathering of district van drivers in American Sign Language (ASL) in January. “When you are doing ASL, you are using your entire body.”

The district employs approximately 14 drivers who manage a small fleet of vans on which a number of students with special needs are transported to and from school.

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In 2012, Sharkey -- then a speech therapist -- began teaching sign language to transportation employees at the suggestion of a parent whose son is hearing impaired.

“Dominic benefits directly from this training as he is ‘severe to profoundly deaf,’” said parent Filomena Citarella about her 12-year-old son. “His speech has greatly improved over the years with many not noticing he is deaf. This actually can be a hindrance to him as people then assume he can hear them. He relies heavily on sign, lip reading, visual cues, etc. for ‘input’ communication. His ‘output’ communication is mostly verbal unless the other person only signs. I felt that if all bus/van drivers and aides were trained in sign, even minimally, it would be invaluable.”

The voluntary sign language training initially began to provide awareness to van drivers of students with identified hearing loss. It later expanded as a way to expressively communicate and to understand basic student requests and needs through signing.

“Signing is becoming more common and not just for deaf children,” Citarella says. “Classroom teachers and aides communicate with special needs students using sign language as one tool. Basic sign training for bus drivers and bus aides is an extension of the signing in the classroom.”

“American Sign Language is an expressive means of communication in which any student might benefit through its visual representation,” adds Sharkey. “For instance, if the bus driver is reminding all students on a bus to sit, both verbally and with the sign for ‘sit,’ students on the back of the bus might not hear the verbal command but would know what to do from seeing the sign for ‘sit.’”

 The annual sign language training is voluntary and efficient. Van drivers review roughly 30 commonly used signs and are given a handy refresher booklet to flip through when needed.

“Warren Township drivers and bus monitors have benefited greatly from attending these special training sessions,” says Transportation Coordinator Jan Donlay. “Our drivers and monitors have been able to implement many things that they have learned from these sessions.”

“The sign language class is very interesting, fun and very informative,” adds driver Priscilla Bledsoe. “We learned basic words and simple sentences like bathroom, mom, dad, home, walk, sit down, and ‘I want more.’ The class is very helpful to me. It has given me a way to communicate with one of the students that I drive to school who is hearing impaired.”

Fellow van driver Noelle Perrine agrees. “I always feel this sign language training is very beneficial to our job because, as a driver for students with special needs, we need to be able to communicate with everyday words to our children.”

Director of Special Services Candida Hengemuhle says “communication is paramount to any child’s ability to express their needs, ideas, comments, protests, feelings, and so on. We will continue to proactively support all children’s ability to communicate, as well as their ability to be understood by others. In doing so, we not only improve communication but foster positive rapport between our drivers and our students.”

Additionally, district transportation employees receive annual training on how to identify students whose actions or words may suggest they are experiencing emotional distress which may lead to self-destructive behaviors. The drivers and aides first take an online course in suicide prevention before receiving additional follow-up training by Hengemuhle.

“”Discussion surrounding diligence, awareness, keen observation and listening to the ‘buzz’ on the bus are key. The participants learned about identifiable behaviors of at-risk students with regard to overt bullying, cyberbullying, stress, anxiety, and suicidal ideation,” says Hengemuhle. “Prevention, procedural expectations and ‘what to do if’ scenarios were presented. The district’s commitment to the whole child includes bus drivers and attendants who are committed to safety as well as the emotional and physical well-being of the students they transport.”


PHOTO #1 - Van drivers receive voluntary sign language training on Jan. 6 from Shannon Sharkey, supervisor of special education for Warren Township Schools. “American Sign Language is an expressive means of communication in which any student might benefit through its visual representation,” says Sharkey.

PHOTO #2 - As van drivers for Warren Township Schools, (L-R) Cheryl Hall, Noelle Perrine, David Dante, and Priscilla Bledsoe attend voluntary training on American Sign Language (ASL) with Supervisor of Special Education Shannon Sharkey on Jan. 6.
PHOTO #3 - Participants receive a handy refresher booklet to flip through when needed.