From late arriving buses to missing pickups, the constant breakdowns in the Boston Public Schools transportation service for students with disabilities amounts to a violation of their right to special education services, the Massachusetts Department of Education said Friday.
In a letter to Boston Superintendent Mary Skipper obtained by the Globe, state officials said dysfunctions in the district’s transportation department between October 2021 and October 2022 denied students the right to safe and timely bus rides. And, because of lateness and absences caused by the bus issues, the bus service prevented some students from receiving services at school, including specialized instruction and therapies.
The district’s failures have put an undue burden on families, forcing parents and caregivers to choose between keeping their children home or arranging for transportation themselves, wrote Rachel Rosen and Stacey Hayes of the department’s special education compliance office.
The department ordered Boston to take corrective actions, including hiring a full-time manager of special education transportation compliance by July 1 and submitting a plan to address the litany of issues identified by the state, with the first part due by mid-March.
The state’s findings are in response to a complaint filed in October by two advocacy groups alleging BPS transportations were in “complete disarray” and that the consequences of the systemwide dysfunction fell disproportionately on students of color and those with disabilities.
Skipper said Friday her team is working to address “systemic challenges and ongoing inconsistencies” with the district’s transportation for students with disabilities.
“We have an obligation to improve the safety, reliability, and timeliness of our transportation services for our students and families and this is especially true for students with disabilities,” she said in a statement, adding the district recently launched a transportation advisory council “that will serve as a forum for collaboration, advocacy and accountability.”
Boston’s school bus problems date back at least a decade. In some cases, students have waited hours for a ride, and in others, buses never showed up at all. The review last year by the state showed that more than 10,000 students, both those with disabilities and without, were affected by uncovered routes over a 15-day period, resulting in student absences.
BPS uses more than 600 buses and private vans to transport about 22,000 students to its schools, as well as private schools and charters, as required by state law. Unlike most students who get picked up at specific bus stops, many special education students require door-to-door service. The corrective actions the state is requiring of BPS for its special education issues could also accelerate improvements to the district’s overall transportation service.
A state review last year determined the district’s transportation problems disproportionately harmed students of color and those with disabilities and had gotten worse in the two years since the previous audit, in 2020.
Boston’s failure to fix its buses had become so pronounced that state officials included the issue in a district improvement plan they had city officials agree to last year; BPS is required to have a districtwide school bus on-time arrival rate of 95 percent.
While it has gotten more buses to run on time, Boston is still far short of the state’s target. In January, the on-time rate of buses ranged from 83.6 percent to 91.3 percent. (The district recently told the Globe it could not provide a single monthly rate because it lacked GPS data used to calculate on-time performance rates for nearly 8 percent of its buses.)
Education Commissioner Jeff Riley on Friday acknowledged Skipper’s willingness to put in place corrective measures but said improvements require a systems-level approach.
“A better functioning central office as well as a commitment from elected officials and the BPS School Committee is required to enable the change our students deserve,” he said in a statement.
The state ruling landed the same day Riley’s department released a review by an outside auditor that found BPS has deficient data collection and reporting processes, which has led to undercounting tardy buses, among other things.
A staff attorney for Greater Boston Legal Services, which filed the October complaint along with Massachusetts Advocates for Children on behalf of six students and their families, said she couldn’t immediately comment on the state’s report because she had not yet been able to inform her clients about it.
But in the complaint, the advocates said the transportation 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.”
Failure to comply with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act could result in a loss of federal funding.
Students with disabilities often depend on the school buses to pick them up from home, a requirement outlined in their individualized education plans. Without transportation from the district, parents have had to scramble to get their children to school, at times relying on taxis and ride-hailing services.
As part of the corrective actions, BPS must document how it will reimburse families for costs they incurred getting their children to school, such as paying for ride services; remedy class time lost due to bus issues by providing students with makeup services; and train transportation department staff on their obligations under state and federal special education laws.
By mid-May, BPS must provide the state with “step-by-step” plans for how it will address uncovered bus routes, a lack of qualified bus monitors, and backup transportation. The district also must ensure it is tracking and reviewing data related to special education transportation issues.
In addition to its systemwide findings, DESE found BPS violated the rights of the six specific students named in the October complaint.
Two of those students are brothers who require door-to-door transportation with a monitor trained to respond to seizures. The district did not provide the boys with rides to or from school for seven weeks at the beginning of the 2022-23 school year, according to the complaint.
Another student, a girl who uses a wheelchair and also is prone to seizures, was not consistently provided with a trained bus monitor. At times, monitors that were provided did not speak English and were unable to communicate with the girl or her mother.
Last month, a consultant hired by the district recommended several solutions, including changing start times for schools and reevaluating whether all children whose special education plans require door-to-door service truly need it.
But those fixes won’t address one of the main challenges highlighted by the state’s new findings: a lack of bus monitors.
BPS told the state during its inquiry that approximately 35 to 40 percent of the district’s bus routes requiring monitors went without at the beginning of the school year, and to meet its legal obligations, it would need about 900 monitors — 400 more than it currently employs.
The Great Divide team explores educational inequality in Boston and statewide. Sign up to receive our newsletter, and send ideas and tips to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mandy McLaren can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @mandy_mclaren.