Attorney: Schools have responsibility to bus some children with disabilities
Providence Journal - 9/28/2018
Sept. 28--PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- Jeremy Young, a seventh-grader with cerebral palsy who had to be kept home from school Thursday because of the bus strike, was able to get a ride to Nathanael Greene Middle School on Friday.
He made it there for picture day.
"Yes, today we are covered for a ride," his mother, C.T. Young, wrote in a Facebook message to a reporter as she rode with her son in a wheelchair-accessible taxi sent by independent candidate for mayor Dianne "Dee Dee" Witman.
"Gives me the weekend to figure out what Monday will bring," Young wrote.
Witman arranged for the taxi to bring Jeremy and his mother to Nathanael Greene, drop his mother back off at home, and then pick her up again at the end of the day before going to get Jeremy after dismissal.
"I know how important it is for anyone in a wheelchair to be able to go where they need to go," Witman said. Witman's husband, Gary Witman, has been in a wheelchair since he became paralyzed in an accident in 2011.
Since Friday was picture day, she said, "it was even more important because he wasn't left out."
C.T. Young said on Thursday that her options for getting her son to school are extremely limited. She doesn't have a vehicle, and wheelchair-accessible taxis in the city are scarce and expensive. That left her with the option of riding a Rhode Island Public Transit Authority bus -- a trip that would require a transfer and a short walk.
But Young said specialized transportation to and from school is included in her son's Individualized Education Program -- a program that ensures students with disabilities retain equal educational services from their school district under state and federal law.
The responsibility to provide that transportation falls to the district, said Anne Mulready, a supervising attorney with the Rhode Island Disability Law Center.
"The school has to ensure that he's able to get to school if they have incorporated that into his IEP," she said.
The school department is offering to reimburse parents for any alternative transportation they acquire, but that may not be sufficient in Young's case if wheelchair-accessible taxis are limited and other options are few, Mulready said.
"That's not really an adequate response," she said. "He can't be the only child who needs an accessible van."
Mulready said she doesn't know all of the facts of Young's case and can't comment specifically on what Young's next steps could be, but the mother does have options for legal recourse.
Young could file an administrative complaint with the Rhode Island Department of Education or request a mediation session or due process hearing for her case, Mulready said.
"She certainly has a right to enforce [Jeremy's] Individual Education Plan," she said.
Megan Geoghegan, spokeswoman for the Rhode Island Department of Education, said both the Department of Education and the Providence Public Schools tried to find other options beyond an offer of reimbursement, but haven't been able to find another company, agency or district that can provide enough buses and drivers.
"Despite exhaustive efforts on the district's part and on our part, we just haven't been able to find a viable alternative," she said. "We're going to keep looking."
Mayor Jorge Elorza said he has been in touch with First Student, the private company that employs the bus drivers; the Teamsters Local 251, the union that represents the drivers; and the federal mediator with whom the parties have been meeting.
"My job is continuing to urge them and call them to be at the table talking to each other so more progress can be made," he said.
The bus drivers decided to strike after negotiations over the workers' retirement plan broke down.
Ultimately, Elorza said, the dispute is between a private company and a private union, and the agreement has to be reached between them.
Elorza said that over the past month, a team of city officials contacted every bus company in the region, explored options with taxis and ride-sharing companies, and reached out to other cities in preparation for a potential strike.
But the city needs about 110 buses to move all of its schoolchildren. And even if there were enough drivers available with commercial licenses, they would still need specialized training and extensive criminal background checks before being allowed to transport children, he said.
"So the logistics of putting this all together combined with the sheer scale, the number of buses and drivers needed, made it so that none of those options were feasible," he said.
When the city was negotiating a contract with First Student in 2015, a provision that would have required the company to cover services in the event of a strike was removed, Victor Morente, spokesman for the mayor's office wrote in an email. That contract expired Aug. 31. An extension is currently pending before the City Council, but has been held at the request of the mayor's office.
"The administration is currently considering any and all options," Morente wrote.
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