The Boston school system’s perennial failure to provide timely bus service violates the educational rights of students with disabilities by causing them to miss instruction and therapies, advocates for six students and their families argue in a complaint filed with the state.
The complaint, filed by two advocacy organizations, represents the latest attempt by exasperated Boston Public Schools parents and advocates to force the school district to address chronic problems of late- and no-show buses and potentially elevates the transportation debacle to a civil rights issue. Unreliable buses can sometimes cause students to arrive more than two hours late, or miss entire days of school if they don’t show up at all.
The move comes five months after the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education found students with disabilities were being disproportionately impacted by the late bus crisis, adding to the learning losses that mounted during the pandemic. That review also found widespread systemic problems with the special education department, meaning when students finally get to school, the services they receive are often inadequate.
“Every day these transportation concerns are not being resolved is another day these children are being harmed,” according to the complaint, which was filed Sunday with the state Education Department by Massachusetts Advocates for Children and Greater Boston Legal Services.
“BPS transportation services remain inadequate, in complete disarray, and disproportionately impact students of color and students with disabilities,” the complaint said.
Many students with disabilities depend on buses to get them to school and often require being picked up and dropped off in front of their homes — arrangements spelled out in individualized education plans parents have negotiated with BPS, making them binding legal documents. If parents can’t wait for the late bus, or if the buses don’t show at all, families have to get their kids to school.
BPS has been struggling to get its buses to run on time for more than a decade and the state under a new district improvement plan this fall is demanding immediate improvement. As of last Wednesday, the district said, the average on-time performance of school buses in the morning for October was 88 percent. The state is demanding that BPS hit a mark of at least 95 percent each month.
BPS has said it is trying to address a shortage of bus drivers and monitors, bus driver absenteeism, and deficiencies with bus routes. The district has said some of its efforts to improve busing were disrupted by the shutdown of the MBTA’s Orange Line, which extended seven days into the school year and ended four weeks ago.
Responding to the complaint on Monday, BPS acknowledged “room for improvement.”
”Our Transportation Department makes decisions each day on how to cover routes with the available staffing and that can occasionally result in some routes going uncovered,” a spokesman said in a statement. “We share the frustrations families have and are urgently working to find lasting solutions for every student.”
But many parents of students with disabilities are growing impatient. They see little improvement with transportation this school year, and feel BPS is not taking their concerns seriously.
“These issues are depriving students of days or weeks of education at a time and, for students with disabilities, critical special education services they are entitled to receive are being missed,” the complaint said. A number of students, the complaint added, are “refusing to attend school, and demonstrating increased anxiety and aggression” because of late or no-show buses.
Massachusetts Advocates for Children, Greater Boston Legal Services, and nearly a dozen other organizations last month sent a letter to Superintendent Mary Skipper, outlining families’ concerns and urging her to work with them on solutions, but BPS never responded, said Jakira Rogers, who heads the racial equity and access program at Mass. Advocates.
Consequently, two of the organizations and several families decided to file the complaint, which Rogers characterized as an unfortunate but necessary move to prompt action.
“We have tried working with the district,” she said in an interview. “The lack of intervention is really disheartening and scary for families.”
Unreliable school transportation is compromising some parents’ ability to keep their jobs because they’re late to work or unable to find child care, the complaint said. BPS has offered to reimburse families for taxis and ride sharing services to get their children to and from school, but the complaint notes it can take months for the payments to get processed, and federal disabilities laws forbid school districts from forcing families to shoulder the costs of required transportation.
Roxi Harvey, chair of the Boston Special Education Parent Advisory Council, said BPS needs to do more to help families, noting “the DESE complaint comes after many years of families being put at risk and with the intent to proactively make changes.”
Advocacy organizations filed the complaint Sunday with the state Education Department’s problem resolution system, which is the official process for addressing concerns from the public about students’ educational rights and legal requirements. The state acknowledged receiving the complaint Monday when the office opened but said it was too soon to comment.
If the state finds a violation, potential outcomes could include corrective action, such as training or changes to policies and procedures. But the complaint said the state is not doing enough to monitor BPS’ progress under the district improvement plan.
The complaint details a variety of issues the families have been experiencing.
Eleven-year-old twins who are on the Autism spectrum and have been diagnosed with epilepsy and other conditions haven’t taken the bus since the school year began, it said, because BPS hasn’t provided them with a required monitor trained to handle seizures so they can safely ride. Instead, their mother has been accompanying the boys to and from school each day in an Uber, costing about $30 a trip.
”To date she has had to spend approximately $1500 to provide transportation for her twins,” the complaint said, adding that the mother “cannot apply for reimbursement because the District’s process requires a social security number. As a recent newcomer to the United States, [the mother] does not have a social security number.”
BPS also has failed to provide transportation for a 12-year-old girl on the Autism spectrum since her placement in an out-of-district program began on Sept. 28, even though BPS agreed transportation would be provided. Consequently, her parents have had to take her, and now her father faces the difficult choice between taking her to school or keeping his job.
The complaint also describes the plight of an 8-year-old boy on the Autism spectrum whose bus has run late or not shown up, with delayed notifications from BPS. Bus monitors have repeatedly been unavailable. His mother has been forced to repeatedly pay for Ubers and her son has become distraught and aggressive.
Another mother, the complaint said, is taking public transit with her 14-year-old daughter who is nonverbal, suffers from seizures, and uses a wheelchair, because BPS transportation has been so unreliable. And a 17-year-old boy who has a variety of complex disabilities couldn’t get transportation for six days after about two weeks’ waiting for a school assignment last month, forcing his mother to pay for Lyfts.
The Great Divide team explores educational inequality in Boston and statewide. Sign up to receive our newsletter, and send ideas and tips to email@example.com.
James Vaznis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.