Transportation and Special Education Students
What rights do students have?
By Diane Wiscarson, Attorney at Law –
School transportation is frequently a source of confusion, and even frustration, for students with Individual Education Programs (IEPs) and their families. When does the district have to provide transportation? Who decides how and when transportation occurs? Is transportation on my child’s IEP? How do I know what my rights are for my child’s transportation? Can my child have an aide on the bus? These are a few questions that come up every year before school starts, and for summer services.
Under the Individual with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) transportation “as may be required to assist a child with a disability to benefit from special education” is a related service to be discussed at an IEP meeting. Transportation includes travel to/from school, travel between schools, and travel in and around school buildings. This article focuses on travel to/from school, and your child’s right to transportation.
Transportation decisions are made at IEP meetings on an individual basis. If a student with an IEP cannot get to/from school the same way as non-disabled students for a disability-related reason, then the district must provide transportation for the student. This generally means door-to-door transportation, both ways, between home and school. If the student needs transportation to benefit from education, the district supplies that transportation.
Types of Transportation
Once the decision has been made by an IEP team that the child needs transportation, school districts choose the type of vehicle to transport the student. There are a variety of vehicles that a district could use – school buses, whether long or short, taxi cabs, mini-buses, vans, or in a rare circumstance, even a privately-owned car.
Districts can contract with an outside provider for a student’s transportation, but that does not transfer the transportation obligation to the contracting agency. The responsibility for transportation remains with the district. Although the district must consider any parent input related to a child’s transportation, there is no requirement that a district transport a child via the parent’s preferred method.
Reimbursement in Lieu
The district does not get to choose the parent’s car as the student’s transportation. Parents sometimes prefer to provide transportation for their child. In that case, mileage reimbursement is a great option. Districts use the GSA federal transportation rate, which is set yearly and is currently $0.535 per mile. Most districts have a specific mileage reimbursement form for parents to use, and the reimbursement covers round trips to/from school.
Least Restrictive Environment (LRE)
The concept of LRE refers to a child’s access to the general education curriculum and general education peers. LRE applies to transportation too! If a child can be successful on a general education bus, even if needed supports have to be provided, then the child need not ride to/from school on a special education bus.
Aides or Other Adults on the Bus
Aides are often needed to support students during transportation. An aide may be needed to facilitate communication, monitor medical conditions, ensure safety, manage disruptive behaviors, or help teach or practice a new skill a student is learning related to transportation to/from school. Also, if a child has the support of a nurse while at school, then a nurse is likely also needed during transport.
These decisions must be made by an IEP team. If an adult will accompany a student on the bus or other form of transportation, then the additional support must be listed specifically on the child’s IEP.
When a child needs additional equipment or accommodations for transportation, those items or adjustments must also be provided by the district. Accommodations could include specific temperature requirements or alternate bus routes. Equipment might be a harness, a lift, restraints, a seat-belt, a car seat, phones or walkie-talkies, or a ramp.
Districts must provide whatever is required to safely transport a student to/from school, even if inconvenient or expensive.
When a district offers transportation for extracurricular activities for general education students, the district must offer transportation to the same activities for special education students. This is true even if the transportation will require the district to use a special education bus, or employ another method of transportation such as a taxi cab or provide mileage reimbursement to parents if the parents choose to drive the child to the activity.
Again, transportation must be listed on the child’s IEP as an accommodation. Then, that accommodation should extend to all school activities requiring transportation. This would include outings like field trips, sports events, outdoor school, work or internship opportunities, and community activities or service.
Not my Neighborhood School
Not all special education services are available at all schools, so districts sometimes “regionalize” services and programs. This means that children with specific needs not served at their neighborhood schools might be bused to a different school, outside of their neighborhood, to receive required special education services.
When a child will attend a school other than his or her neighborhood school, the transportation is generally a special education bus, but any transportation option could be utilized, at the district’s discretion. Thus, some children also travel to schools at district expense via taxi cab or secure transport.
Here also, mileage reimbursement to the family is likely an option that could be discussed with the district. Parents sometimes choose this option to spend more time with their child, or because of personal preference. However, in all circumstances, this is a parent choice and cannot be required by the district.
Can my Other Children Ride the Special Education Bus Too?
If your child is riding a special education bus, then the answer depends on the district. For example, Portland Public Schools has a “hitcher” policy which allows siblings to ride to school on the special education bus if there is space available. Other districts have a strict policy that prohibits siblings from riding on the special education bus.
This is a matter very specific to the particular district in which you reside. Check with your school district to find out what their policy is, and then follow any request policies if this is an option that might work well for your family.
Special Education Buses Leaving School Early
Frequently, special education students are dismissed early from classes, and the special education buses are seen leaving the school with all students on board before the dismissal bell ever rings. Is this legal? The answer depends on the reason the students are leaving school early.
For a student who needs extra time to transition to the bus after school, or a student whose anxiety or sensory needs are aggravated by all the activity in the school halls, more transition time is a great accommodation. This extra time accommodation should be documented on the child’s IEP and implemented to serve the child’s needs.
All too often, however, “self-contained” classroom students are ALL dismissed before the bell, and special education buses depart before the rest of the students are dismissed from school. Unless there is a child-specific reason for this, the United States Office of Civil Rights (OCR) has determined this to be an illegal practice by districts. It discriminates against students with disabilities by costing them instruction time, social passing time, and the regular experience of school.
If your child is leaving the classroom before the last bell, carefully investigate the reason why to determine if this is something your child needs. If it is, make sure it is on the IEP, and if it isn’t, ask that the practice stops immediately, or consult with OCR. OCR for the region is located in Seattle, and you can review OCR policies and other information at http://www.seattle.gov/civilrights/.
If you have concerns or questions about transportation, be sure to discuss those issues at your child’s IEP meeting. Once that discussion has occurred, make sure all transportation arrangements are specifically documented on your child’s IEP.
Bio: Diane Wiscarson worked her way through the special education system on behalf of her son, and in so doing, found her passion for helping other families navigate special education and the law. Since graduating from law school in 1996, and founding Wiscarson Law, she has helped thousands of Oregon and Washington families obtain appropriate services and placements for their special needs children in public schools and education service districts in both states. For more information call 503.727.0202, or go to www.wiscarsonlaw.com.
This article initially appeared in the Summer 2017 issue of Spectrums Magazine.