FRISCO, Texas — Transporting students with special needs carries with it many regulations and procedures. Aside from the extended list of requirements, those involved with the transportation must fully comprehend the legal principals that are the motives for the procedures implemented. That was the goal of a general session on day five of the TSD Conference here.
“Not all children with disabilities are entitled to transportation as a related service, they are entitled to transportation if non-disabled children are provided transportation,” said Julie Weatherly, an attorney specializing in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, during Tuesday’s general session that highlighted the legal and compliance aspects of transporting students with special needs.
IDEA is the only federal law that provides the definition of transportation as a related service for a student, as dictated by their Individual Education Program, or IEP. It is broadly defined by the U.S. Department of Education, as well as by the courts.
Ultimately, the IDEA recognized transportation as a related service necessary for a child with a disability to benefit from special education services, and includes travel to and from school and between schools or special services required for the child’s disability. The IEP can also require the use of special school bus equipment like lifts and ramps, and even special vehicles.
Weatherly noted the big question on the audience’s mind: Who makes the decision about transportation needs and what exactly constitutes related service, and what doesn’t?
Weatherly addressed the issue by stating that a student’s IEP or Section 504 team will make the final decision whether the student needs transportation as a related service depending on the student’s individual needs and disability.
In her experience with special needs cases, Weatherly mentioned the lack of transportation department presence during IEP team meetings, and she stressed the importance of transportation representation during these meetings in conjunction with parents to make the best decision for the student.
There are two approaches behind the decision-making for related services. Weatherly explained transportation is not an entitlement.
The primary approach is to pay for transportation rather than to litigate for it. Most cases have adopted a unique analysis, which is based on the student’s disability. The second is more of an axis approach, she said, deciding if the child needs transportation in order to access their program. This approach, she added is rarely seen in courtrooms.
Weatherly went on to address more practices that can be viewed as discriminatory against children with disabilities. For instance, she spoke about the length of school days and bus rides.
“The next (issue) that I get very often, the school day of a disability student cannot be shortened solely to convenience transportation or for any other reason than the child’s individual disability,” said Weatherly.
Referencing a case from Alabama, which was investigated by the Department of Justice’s Office of Civil Rights, or OCR, Weatherly told of a group of students with disabilities who were released early from school in order to accommodate transportation. OCR deemed the case showed a violation of student rights because the children being treated differently than their nondisabled peers.
Case after case, Weatherly provided the audience with vivid examples regarding transportation policies for special needs students designed to help the audience understand the importance of following set procedures and avoiding unintentional or intentional discrimination. Embracing the thinking-outside-the-box method, Weatherly emphasized the need to take action to avoid crucial outcomes for students with disabilities, such as regarding incidents of bullying.