HomeSpecial NeedsD.C. Back in Legal Hot Water Over Busing of Students with Disabilities

D.C. Back in Legal Hot Water Over Busing of Students with Disabilities

A class action lawsuit filed in federal court last month alleges that the District of Columbia is once again failing to meet its “basic obligation to ensure students with disabilities have safe, reliable and appropriate transportation to and from school.”

Five parents of affected students joined disabilities advocate The Arc in seeking declaratory and injunctive relief against D.C. and the Office of State Superintendent of Education (OSSE), claiming that school buses show up late while some don’t show up at all. This, they argue, is denying at least some of the 4,100 D.C. students a free and appropriate public education (FAPE), one of the main principles of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

The suit also alleges that the service issues violate the American Disabilities Act (ADA), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the DC Human Rights act because the students are deprived of their equal opportunity to participate in and benefit from their education. Additionally, the lawsuit claims violations of ADA’s prohibition on unnecessary segregation.

The lawsuit states the affected students “are suffering or will suffer irreparable harm.”

The school bus issues are not new to D.C. OSSE was under court supervision for late or no-show buses from 2010 until 2012, when the district said it improved to a 94 percent on-time arrival rate with sufficient staffing and new state-of-the-art technology.

“OSSE is failing to meet all of those same metrics today, just 12 years later,” states the lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on March 7.

It claims that the district “does not have any mechanism to reliably and systematically track its buses and fails to meet the schedules it sets for its bus routes.”

During the first five months of the current school year, the lawsuit states that OSSE’s own publicly reported data shows over 1,000 school bus delays and cancelations, and 100 delayed routes in the week leading up to the court filing. Additionally, the plaintiffs state that OSSE buses were late or canceled 1,500 times from Jan. 30 through March 15 of last year.

“This leaves students hopelessly waiting for the bus to arrive with no way of knowing if or when they will make it to school on any given day,” the plaintiffs write in the lawsuit. “When the buses eventually arrive and transport the students to school, the students are tardy and miss critical specialized instruction and related services. And, when the district fails to provide a bus at all, students are forced to miss days or weeks of school.”

The lawsuit also states that student safety is negatively impacted when they are left stranded with no school buses, and they miss instructional time as well as being subjected to “extensive time” spent on the bus, “where they are unable to access food medication or toilets.”

Specific Allegations of Service Issues

The conditions of the students represented include autism, autism with seizures, a rare chromosomal disorder that causes global developmental delays, and a brain tumor that causes hydrocephalus, global developmental delays, epilepsy, and cortical visual impairment.

All these students have endured school buses arriving late at school or home.

An 11-year-old boy with autism was transported to the address of his deceased mother instead of where he has lived for the past several years. On another occasion, the student was transported to the wrong school, and neither his parent nor D.C. Child and Family Services knew his whereabouts for three hours. The boy was then transported to the correct school, again without his family or Child and Family Services being notified.

The 13-year-old boy with the chromosomal disorder requires a “proper safety harness” to transport him safely because of his epilepsy. But the suit claims the school bus regularly does not have the “harness anchor,” which requires him to either miss school or his parents must transport him. The complaint alleges that the late bus rides home resulted in him soiling his diaper, which does not happen during a normal ride time, and arriving hot and sweaty when the bus air conditioner does not work.

OSSE is accused of failing to provide transportation for another boy with autism, who is 12, “for almost all of the 2023 extended school year.” His teacher eventually volunteered to drive him.

The school bus that transports the 14-year-old boy with autism and seizures, the suit states, is often without his dedicated aide or “child safety harness” that he needs to ride the bus safely. His mother is often left to either transport him herself or the boy misses class and related service. Afterschool home therapy providers discontinued service because of the frequency of his late bus, which resulted in the boy demonstrating more aggressive behaviors “and slowing or stopping progress on his IEP goals, such as eating and using the bathroom independently,” the suit adds.

The 8-year-old girl with hydrocephalus is nonverbal, requires assistance in all activities of daily living, and needs timely medication to control her seizures. A nurse attendant is required to ride with her on the bus. But the suit alleges that OSSE has repeatedly failed to provide the girl with timely transportation, the nurse, or a bus that accommodates her wheelchair.

Previous due-process hearings held to address the parents’ concerns have been dismissed, the lawsuit claims.

“This transportation crisis leaves students and families without any option but to seek redress before this court,” the document reads. “Despite their efforts to resolve this issue through due process, they and other similarly situated families remain without access to appropriate transportation services and without any indication that OSSE will take action to remedy the situation.”

In addition to a preliminary and permanent injunction ordering OSSE to revise its transportation policies and practices, the class-action suit in part seeks an independent monitor or special master to be appointed for ensuring compliance with the court’s order as well as reimbursement to parents who have had to transport their children to and from school.

Related: TSD Conference Speakers Share Legal Expertise, Review Headline Cases
Related: Liability of School Districts in the Transportation of Children with Disabilities
Related: A Good PTSD: Post-TSD Conference is Terrific and Timely But Not at All Traumatic

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