By the time parents got their turn to testify at yesterday’s City Council hearing on the city’s problematic school bus service, lead officials from the Department of Education, such as Deputy Chancellor of Operations Kathleen Grimm, were long gone.
“I’m just so disappointed that the [DOE] and the [Office of Pupil Transportation], officials couldn’t see fit to stay and listen to the family testimony because I really feel like they need to hear what some of the parents need to say,” said one mother of a six-year-old autistic son.
After nearly three hours of listening to officials mull over the issues facing the DOE’s school-busing system, the parents, who actually have to deal with the mess on a regular basis, finally got an opportunity to voice the distress that the flawed system has caused them and their special-needs children.
Some of the problems parents have with the city’s busing services include chronic lateness, overcrowding, long ride times, frequent route changes and staff transfers, and under-trained bus drivers and bus matrons.
“Things like this just make parents like us struggle and fight so much more, and we’re already struggling and fighting every day,” said one mother of a five-year-old wheelchair-bound girl who suffers from a rare form of epilepsy. “And the idea that we have another system to battle makes us feel so helpless.”
She was forced to put up a fight at the start of this school year just to get her daughter on the bus. At least four or five times at the beginning of the school year, the bus company responsible for picking up her child either failed to show up or failed to bring a bus adequately equipped to bring aboard wheelchair-bound students
As such, she was forced to take her daughter to school via mass transit from Upper-Manhattan to Lower-Manhattan. That’s no easy task with a wheelchair-bound special-needs child. Another mother spoke about the difficulties of getting her special-needs child to school on public transportation.
“My daughter had a meltdown, which is a decidedly different meltdown when they have autism. We’re in the lobby and the bus took off because it was over a minute, and then I already had stress from a rough morning with her. She freaked out. Getting her to the train was complete chaos,” the mother said.
The mother said she was informed that the window of time the bus driver will wait at a given stop has decreased from the three minutes to one minute. The one-minute window places the driver in a tough position because they face significant fines if they show up late to school. Even though the morning route runs smoother now, she said her daughter still arrives late in the afternoon.
All of the parents testified that the start of this school year is not unique, the school bus service is chaotic at the beginning of every school year. The dysfunction within the system came to public light recently after countless mishaps at the beginning of this year, including the highly publicized incident where a 3-year-old autistic boy from Brooklyn was forced to endure a five-hour-long bus ride home from school.
Many special needs students have travel time-limits written into their Individualized Education Programs. Jackie Ceonzo, mother of a 17-year-old autistic teenager, has been dealing with the bus system for years, and says it’s no easy task to secure that IEP designation, and they’re often not honored.
“Many parents don’t even know how to get a limited time travel. When you go to your [Children Study Center of New York ]meeting, [you find] they change the rules year after year,” Ceonzo said.
IEP travel-time mandates require that no special-needs student travel for more than an hour-and-fifteen minutes in one sitting. Ceonzo’s son has an IEP designated travel time, but his bus is scheduled to pick him up at 6:30 a.m. for an 8:45 a.m. school start-time.
The parents also complained that while many of the bus drivers and bus matrons are kind people, most of them aren’t adequately trained to deal with special-needs students. Although matrons and drivers are required to receive some training to deal with special-needs kids for state and city certification, the individual bus companies contracting with the city are responsible for subsequent and more comprehensive trainings. One woman in attendance said the extent of some of those trainings can amount to simply watching a short instructional DVD.
The OPT can only recommend that they attend trainings geared towards the needs of the kids they serve. When parents and students do establish a reliable relationship with a driver and a matron, that relationship is often short-lived. Either the driver decides to transfer to another, perhaps easier route, or their company is taken off the route all together and replaced by a new one.
Many parents have also reported language barrier issues with bus drivers and matrons. In a situation where communication is critical, English-speaking staff is a necessity. Oddly enough, the DOE requires that all drivers and matrons speak English, and it’s the DOE that has the final say in certifying the staff for work.
At this point, parents said they’re looking for better communication on the part of the OPT, the bus companies and all other parties involved, more consistent and efficient routes, better trained staff and better amenities on the buses.
“At least have air-conditioned busses for the summer session,” Ceonzo said. “I have to fight for that?”
They also urged that the OPT mandate that all buses install climate-control, camera and GPS systems. Carin Vanderdonk, mother of a child with neurological disabilities who’s been using the bus service for over a decade, urged that the city out cut corners in allocating funds to enhance its services.
“The current system reminds of the old saying penny-wise, pound-foolish,” Vanderdonk said. “The current busing school system for children receiving special education is abysmal…This vulnerable group of students, when delivered to school after being in a needlessly long and stressful bus environment, are children who are going to need even more time and more resources just to be ready to learn, and receive their therapeutic services.”