SIEGEL TEITLBAUM & EVANS, LLP
260 Madison Avenue - 22nd Floor
New York, New York 10016
November 26, 2013
Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg
New York, NY 10007
Dennis M. Walcott
Chancellor, New York City Department of Education
52 Chambers Street
New York, NY 10007
Dear Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Walcott,
In August, 2013 our firm was contacted by a coalition of parents who rely on the Department of Education’s Office of Pupil Transportation (OPT) to transport their special needs children to and from school. OPT is required to provide adequately for their transportation under the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA), but these parents reported that serious systemic and individual problems with the bus service provided by OPT were having an adverse affect on their children.
Reports from the start of the 2013-14 school year include frequent violations of allowable travel time and Individualized Education Plans (IEP), unannounced and frequent route changes, last minute cancellations and late pickups, excessive waiting time on buses, inadequate training of drivers and matrons, improper or inadequate oversight of children, communication breakdowns between OPT and the bus companies, and poor communication with parents.
These incidents reflect a failure by OPT and the Department of Education to deliver services that meet their own standards and legal obligations. Children have suffered physically and emotionally, and this has deeply disturbed parents who are already under stress caring for their vulnerable children and seeking to foster their education and socialization.
Since the start of the school year our firm, working together with Parents to Improve School Transportation (PIST) and individual parents, has met with OPT staff members and written letters detailing specific problems to Mr. Eric Goldstein, CEO of the Office of School Support Services at the Department of Education. This joint effort not only hastened the resolution of most parental concerns, but revealed the need for an independent advocate to work with OPT on behalf of parents and children.
According to many parents, the busing problems documented at the start of this school year recur annually. In order for OPT to change this pattern, quickly solve problems as they arise, and limit the harm to children, we recommend the appointment of an independent liaison to work with the families and OPT. This year two people, working part time in our office on behalf of almost forty families, helped to quickly resolve a wide range of problems while providing parents with a much-needed independent advocate.
At the start of each school year, parents and children are severely impacted by a wide range of problems with bus routing and staffing. These include:
- Transportation for special needs children requires that buses have adequate air conditioning and heating, and be staffed by drivers and matrons who know their routes and the needs of the children they serve. However, buses frequently lack adequate air conditioning, causing children to arrive at school or home dangerously dehydrated. And because of the OPT contracting process, the bus companies, drivers, matrons, and routes change from year to year. Each fall new drivers learn their routes while school is in session, leading to weeks or months of significant lateness in the morning and afternoon. Matrons are similarly unfamiliar with the children in their care. Some lack the training and experience required to assist special needs children properly, who often cannot adequately communicate their needs or their fears. To function effectively in school, at home, and in various therapeutic activities after school, it is critical that the children have a stable routine, and familiarity with those who assist them. Lateness and other schedule disruptions whose cause they cannot fully comprehend, and being entrusted to strangers who do not know them or understand their needs, make the beginning of each school year a fearful ordeal.
Among many disturbing reports we received at the start of the 2013 school year, bus drivers operated their vehicles in an unsafe manner; matrons were overheard by parents using abusive language towards the children; younger special needs children were subjected to abusive language by older children on the bus; one parent observed a matron improperly buckling her child’s wheelchair into position, posing a serious safety threat; and in another instance, a matron incorrectly insisted that a child on her bus be dropped off at the wrong home address, despite being told by the doorman that the child did not live there; to make matters worse, the child’s parent was not notified and spent frantic hours trying to locate her child.
Some problems originate with the management of the bus companies. Children on one route were subjected to unusually long trips to and from school that violated their IEP and that caused them to miss hours of schooling each day, simply because the bus company had improperly instructed its drivers to avoid the Midtown Tunnel in order to save on toll costs. When we and the parents brought this matter to the attention of OPT, the company was reprimanded and ordered to take the Tunnel, but it was too late to remedy a more than a week’s worth of missed school and long, hot days in traffic.
- We received many complaints about the excessive number of children assigned to a bus route and overcrowding on busses. When too many children are assigned to one bus route, problems result: travel times violate their IEP, they are chronically picked up late, arrive late to school, are delayed coming home, and often arrive in a debilitated condition that impairs their capacity to learn or to participate in therapy. Similarly, when buses are over-crowded the drivers and matrons cannot attend to the children in their care adequately, often fail to communicate with parents as required when a child will be picked up or delivered home late. More than a month of disruption, worry, suffering, and lost learning resulted from such overcrowding and over-scheduling of routes. It required hundreds of phone calls and emails by parents, and a series of letters from our office detailing the problems, before OPT adjusted the schedules, redesigned routes, and assigned additional buses.
- Related but not exclusive to the problem of overcrowding is the excessive waiting time that children experience on the bus before and after school. Many bus routes deliver and pick up children at two schools. Problems arise when the schools have different opening and closing hours. Although a child may have been picked up at home on time, he/she is delivered to school late because other children on the bus are being dropped off first at a school whose opening hour is later than their own. The delay causes them to arrive at their own school after classes have begun. The problem occurs again at the end of the school day: some children must wait on the bus, often in hot or cold conditions, for others whose dismissal time is later than that of their own school.
Once again, after some weeks of effort, OPT addressed these problems by adding more routes, and assigning one bus per route, per school. Despite the fact that similar and predictable problems arise each year, parents and children were subjected to considerable hardships before solutions were found.
4. Because travel and wait times are long, even a child who has planned ahead and addressed their needs prior to boarding the bus will occasionally require a restroom en route. OPT should work with the families, schools, and bus companies to create a protocol to address this need.
Enclosed is a sample of 38 cases in which we represented parents and children whose concerns were resolved by OPT. In connection with that effort we want to mention the work of two OPT staff, Richie Scarpa and Jon-Erik Arenas, whose efforts to resolve problems met with parental approval.
In light of the effort made by the parents, Melissa Russo of WNBC –TV, our office, and OPT, we believe that most issues of the kind outlined above could be avoided through a series of reforms. We recommend that:
1. Standards for drivers and matrons should be strengthened, and that all bus employees who work with special needs children be properly trained and certified;
2. The bus contracting process should be reformed to ensure that the companies and their employees are able to meet their obligations before the start of the school year;
3. OPT must significantly improve its route planning and scheduling, and better anticipate the recurring need for more buses and more routes to serve the children in its care adequately;
4. Because problems will always arise, an independent liaison/advocate should be authorized to work with OPT, parents, and school staff to anticipate and resolve issues as they arise.
The documented hardships imposed on parents and children for almost two months at the start of the 2013-14 school year are not inevitable. If our recommendations are followed, all students, especially those most in need, are far more likely to arrive at school and home safe, happy and ready to learn.
cc: Mayor-elect Bill DeBlasio
Public Advocate-elect Letitia James
Controller-elect Scott Stringer
Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr.
Brooklyn Borough President-elect Eric Adams
Manhattan Borough President-elect Gale Brewer
Queens Borough President-elect Melinda Katz
Staten Island Borough President-elect James Oddo