Judge says he will dismiss long-running Petties case, giving final approval to D.C. control of special-ed buses

Update 3:30 p.m. Judge Paul L. Friedman has signed an order to dismiss the case.

Original post:

After 17 years of litigation, a federal judge on Wednesday said he will give final approval to D.C. government control of transportation of special-education students, a milestone for the city and Mayor Vincent C. Gray.


District of Columbia Public Schools vehicles. (Jared Soares/For The Washington Post)

“We’ve come a really long way,” he said, praising the efforts of State Superintendent Hosanna Mahaley Jones, Chancellor Kaya Henderson and a host of other lawyers and administrators who have worked to improve the long-struggling system.

Concluding Petties is a victory for the District, which has struggled for decades to prove it can provide basic social services without court supervision.

Gray (D) called the decision “a wonderful affirmation of the progress that we’ve made in getting children with disabilities to school in a responsible and predictable way.”

The original plaintiffs were parents of students with disabilities who had been placed in private schools because of the city’s inability to provide appropriate special-education services in public schools.

They complained that the city’s tuition payments to private schools were chronically late and inaccurate, endangering students’ ability to stay in those schools.

Shortly thereafter, serious concerns emerged about the District’s inability to get students to school safely, reliably and on time. There were not enough bus drivers and attendants, nor were there enough buses. Students were arriving late to school more than two-thirds of the time.

Since then, with the help of court-appointed special master Elise Baach, the city published payment and rate-setting rules and established a process to resolve payment disputes.

Now payments are being made on time, said Steven Ney, a University Legal Services lawyer representing the plaintiffs, in court Wednesday.

Fixing the transportation problems was more difficult, said District lawyer Ellen Efros.

A court-appointed administrator, David Gilmore, oversaw the day-to-day operations of the city’s buses for nearly a decade, repeatedly finding cause to delay transferring that responsibility back to the city. In November, the court finally allowed the city to resume control of the bus system at Gilmore’s recommendation.

Buses now get students to school on time more than 94 percent of the time, according to court documents, and absenteeism among bus drivers and attendants is much reduced: 93 percent of staff meet attendance standards.

Ney, the plaintiffs’ lawyer, pointed out two incidents that have raised concern among parents in recent weeks: a four-year-old boy forgotten aboard a bus for nearly seven hours and a six-year-old girl, who claimed that bus attendants failed to intervene when she was attacked by older students.

Friedman said there will always be such “aberrational incidents,” and the question is whether the city has strong enough systems and leaders in place to deal with them swiftly and fairly. Friedman said the city is “ready to move forward.”

The District’s transportation system is now “in good hands,” he said. “It’s in good shape.”

Ney agreed.

Wednesday’s hearing offered an opportunity for anyone, particularly parents of students with disabilities, to speak out against settling the case. No one opposed the settlement in either written or verbal comments to the court.

A full story will follow.

Emma Brown writes about national education and about people with a stake in schools, including teachers, parents and kids.

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