08/09/2012 03:19 pm ET Updated Oct 09, 2012

Uphill Both Ways: Transportation for Special Education Students in DC

No D.C. student commutes to school barefoot in the snow and uphill both ways -- but we've seen many children whose trip may be the real-life local counterpart to that worn joke, only much less comic.

This back to school season is a good time to focus on ensuring that all children can safely travel to and from school. Parents do this by considering carpools, scrutinizing bus schedules, and working out whether their children are old enough to walk by themselves. At Children's Law Center, we're doing the same thing.

Many of our young clients are special education students. Often, students who receive special education services need some accommodations getting to and from school. In D.C., transportation for special education students is managed by a division of the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE). This includes a Parent Call Center, which is supposed to be an information hub where parents can get real-time answers to questions about their children's transportation. Unfortunately, this division has a chronic history of problems, and too often the call center doesn't have answers. Since 1995, the District has been the subject of a class-action lawsuit regarding special education transportation, Petties v. DC.

Last month the District filed a motion to exit the suit. Based on what our clients have experienced in the 2011-2012 school year, Children's Law Center thinks ending Petties would be premature. A few of the situations that have occurred in the last six months include:

  • A three-year-old boy dropped off at school more than two hours late. The bus driver would not explain where the boy had been or why he was late, and the driver threatened the boy's mother that if she complained, he may mistreat her son.
  • A six-year-old boy's bus did not come to pick him up. The Parent Call Center told his mother the bus was merely running late, and trusting the staff, the mother did not make alternate arrangements. But the bus never came and the boy missed school.
  • A mother started to worry when her seven-year-old son wasn't home on time and the call center could not give her any information about the location of his bus. Finally the boy got home 90 minutes late, and the driver explained he had to drive two routes that day. The same thing happened the next month.
  • A bus driver refused to let a nine-year-old boy with an emotional disability on the bus because of his behavior problems. The school called the boy's mother, who had no transportation of her own and was waiting for other children to get home, and told her that if she did not immediately come pick up her son, the school would call Child Protective Services.

This is just a sampling of cases. And historically, there's been even more trouble at the beginning of the school year. OSSE has not yet had a successful transportation launch for the first day of school. Special education students have missed the first days or weeks of school, ridden buses for hours and been delivered to the wrong home at the end of the day. I wish we didn't need the oversight of a class-action lawsuit to ensure children get to and from school in a safe and timely fashion. But we do. Just like parents make sure their youngster shows she can walk to school successfully at least once before letting her go alone, we think OSSE should have one successful beginning of school before we end court supervision.

These students aren't going uphill both ways -- but it's been an uphill battle just to get them to school. So until OSSE can get it right, even just once, from the beginning of the school year, the District should not be excused from the extra scrutiny of Petties.