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4 Hours to Get to School? How Parents Can Fight Special Needs Busing Issues

By Amy Zimmer | October 13, 2016 7:17am
 Many special needs students spend hours on buses. Here's why and what parents can do.
Many special needs students spend hours on buses. Here's why and what parents can do.
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MANHATTAN — Duane Peek walked his young daughter to the bus for the first day of school, waving goodbye as the doors closed and she started her trip from their Morningside Heights home to a Roosevelt Island school for students with special needs.

Nearly four hours later and three hours after classes began, the 8-year-old girl finally arrived at her destination— the Child School.

The return trips were just as bad, preventing his daughter from attending her after-school swim practice on West 118th Street despite the fact that classes ended at 2:30 p.m.

It got so bad that the family finally yanked her off of the bus and started taking her to afterschool programs themselves, or hiring someone to do it.

“They were not getting her there until after 6 p.m. Nobody should be on a bus that long,” Peek said, adding that they didn’t want to risk his daughter turning into a “big mess” from being on the bus so long, especially given her sensory issues, ADHD and impulse control issues.

But the current situation is unsustainable and "quite onerous" for their time and finances, he said.

Peek’s complaints are not uncommon among the thousands of parents of students with special needs who ride city-contracted buses to public and publicly funded private schools across the city, advocates say.

Despite a rule that school bus trips within a borough should take no longer than 90 minutes and no longer than 115 minutes when going between boroughs, bus rides routinely take double that time or more, according to the grassroots group Parents to Improve School Transportation, or PIST.

Companies that fail to adhere to the time constraints are supposed to be fined, according to Department of Education officials who said the DOE's Office of Pupil Transportation (OPT), which oversees buses, monitors companies to ensure they are compliant.

DOE officials said they work tirelessly with bus companies, schools and families to ensure students receive safe and reliable transportation and that any concerns are addressed as quickly as possible.

But they didn't respond to questions about how many complaints they've received about late buses or how many fines have been imposed.

For parents who are struggling to cope with a seemingly impossible commute schedule, DNAinfo New York has rounded up what you need to know about chronic bus delays and what can be done about them:

The distance of your child's commute has no bearing on the length of his or her bus ride.

Every year, advocates at INCLUDEnyc — a nonprofit that provides information and resources to parents of children with special needs — receive numerous complaints about school buses.

The most common problem is the amount of time children spend traveling, which can be difficult for many students who have issues with sitting still “for any amount of time,” said Ruth DiRoma, the organization’s family educator who will be giving a bus workshop open to all parents Thursday at P.S. 233 in Forest Hills.

“Some of the pick-up times are extraordinarily early, since they’re picking up 10 or 11 kids, but it’s hard for little kids to be on a bus at 6:30 in the morning,” DiRoma said.  

“Part of the problem is traffic. The president might be in town. You get caught behind a garbage truck. There’s a fire.”

Moreover, the distance students have to travel may have no bearing on their commute time. Some buses pick up and drop off at multiple schools, requiring students to wait for other students to be picked up and dropped off at different sites while they wait in their seats.

Other buses are delayed when caregivers aren't at the designated location on time.  Lastly, the city's OPT uses an "an archaic computer system” to determine which kids get put on which buses, which can mean roundabout journeys.

For example, a bus ride two miles from Clinton Hill to a preschool in Park Slope used to take INCLUDEnyc’s Lori Podvesker's son two hours to complete. Now he travels 22 miles to a school in Long Island and it takes 40 minutes, she said.

If you have a problem with your child's bus, don't call the bus company.

Many parents call their child’s bus company when there are issues like a late bus — which is a mistake, DiRoma said.

Instead they should call the OPT at 718-392-8855, the DOE’s website notes.

Parents whose kids attend the same school should communicate about bus problems and organize together, DiRoma suggested.

“Parents should always call and file a complaint every time a child is late. The more complaints, the quicker it’s flagged in the OPT system,” DiRoma said.

Parents should also find out who in their child’s school is responsible for busing and put pressure on them, Podvesker said, advising parents to also go to their parent coordinators, assistant principal for special education and teachers.

Even then, it can take a long time to get things addressed.

Michelle Brunson, who lives in Flatbush, has been working with her school and calling OPT to change the 6:30 a.m. pick-up for her son Chase's 7:55 a.m. start time at his Autism Spectrum Disorder Horizon program at Vinegar Hill’s P.S. 307.

His pediatrician and neurologist both wrote letters stating the trip was too long for him to be on a bus. Last year, his pickup was around 7:15 a.m.


Michelle Brunson's son Chase. (photo courtesy of Michelle Brunson)

It’s been more than a month since school started and Brunson is still waiting for a change. Brunson, who was supposed to start a new job in September, has delayed that to take him to school on a 15-minute train ride to Downtown Brooklyn and a cab ride from there, which costs about $12.

“We’re waiting and waiting and waiting," she said.

"This is causing a financial hardship on my family. I know my son — he will not be able to sit still for an hour-and-a-half. I’ve been having to jump through hoops and spend a lot of time waiting for something that should be considered a medical emergency.”

Be prepared to advocate, advocate, advocate.

Bus policies, bus routes and clear communication about delays are not a given.

Currently, the OPT is not always transparent about the routes and does not provide information to parents about all of the stops, advocates say.

In addition, there’s very little training required by the state for bus staffers working with special needs students, and what little training exists is provided by bus company staff rather than experts who know how to work with special needs populations, advocates say.

Still, that doesn't mean that parents have no recourse.

Kensington mom Jill Weidman, whose daughter goes to a school in College Point, Queens, lost all confidence in her bus driver when it took her autistic daughter five-and-a-half hours to come home on the first day of school.

The driver blamed mechanical problems — and the fact that he followed his GPS to an address in the East Village instead of their designated drop off spot in Kensington.

“I was so furious. She was on the bus for almost as long as she was in school,” Weidman said.

She took her complaints up the chain of command, working with INCLUDEnyc, and was able to secure a new bus driver for her daughter’s route.

“I don’t think I was asking for a lot,” Weidman said. “The bus system is so dysfunctional.”