An episode last week in which a 4-year-old boy was left forgotten aboard a school bus for seven hours should not interfere with the upcoming settlement of a long-running class-action suit involving transportation of D.C. special-education students, a federal judge indicated during a status hearing Wednesday.
A city investigation of the episode led to the firing of two employees who had failed to observe several safety procedures.
Judge Paul L. Friedman of the U.S. District Court of the District of Columbia appeared satisfied Wednesday that the incident was an isolated instance of employee misconduct, not a symptom of broad mismanagement.
“I don’t think any of us want this incident to be a reason why this case can’t be settled after 17 years,” Friedman said.
The class-action suit was brought in 1995 by D.C. parents who charged that the city had failed to provide reliable transportation for more than 3,000 students with disabilities.
The long-running suit, Petties v. District of Columbia, led to federal oversight of the city’s special-education school buses until November, when Friedman agreed that the city had demonstrated that it can provide safe and consistent service.
The suit is scheduled to be dismissed after a Dec. 19 fairness hearing meant to give parents a chance to weigh in on the District’s performance.
The forgotten-child episode led lawyers for the Petties plaintiffs to call for an independent investigation of the incident. They retreated from that position Wednesday and asked instead to meet with District officials.
“We still do have some further questions before we’re confident that the District has done everything it can to make sure children in its custody are safe,” said plaintiffs’ lawyer Steven Ney.
Ellen Efros, a lawyer representing the District, agreed to a meeting. But she said city officials had responded rapidly and decisively to a problem that stemmed from the bad judgment of two people.
“If people don’t do what they’re supposed to do, we can’t control for that,” she said, “unless we replace everybody with robots.” Efros said the U.S. attorney’s office is looking into whether the two fired employees should be criminally charged.
Friedman agreed that no one should expect perfection from a bureaucracy. The standard for dismissing Petties, he said, is a high level of confidence — among lawyers representing affected families and among the families themselves — that the District can manage its own system responsibly without court involvement.
“The confidence level is much higher than it used to be,” he said.
Friedman said he expects the Petties fairness hearing to go forward as planned Dec. 19.