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D.C. is failing disabled students who rely on buses to get to school

Late and no-show buses have caused students to miss class time and have left families frustrated, scrambling and not knowing what to expect one day to the next

Ruthie Longenecker is one of the many students with disabilities who rely on buses to get them to and from school. (Courtesy of the Longenecker family)
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At 4:20 on a recent afternoon, Steve Longenecker looked out the window of his D.C. home with tempered hope. The school bus carrying his daughter Ruthie could arrive at that moment, or he could have to wait another hour.

“Who knows when it will come?” he said.

This week, his daughter’s bus has been showing up on time to take her to and from a school that serves students with intellectual disabilities. But in previous weeks, her bus frequently arrived late or not at all.

“Lots of times there would be a phone call of: ‘We’re sorry, your bus is running late,’ but then the bus wouldn’t come,” Longenecker said of the mornings his family was left waiting. “When the bus simply wasn’t coming, we would sometimes just keep her home. If we did take her to school, because of traffic, it would take 45 minutes to get there, five or 10 minutes to get her into the building and then we’d have to drive 45 minutes back.”

On those days, he said, he and his wife wouldn’t know if they would have to make that trip back to the school in the afternoon or if her bus would show up: “Sometimes it did. Sometimes it didn’t.”

Longenecker’s family is one of many who rely on D.C. to get students with disabilities to and from school. That also makes them one of many who have been failed by the city since early January.

Parents of disabled students say late and no-show school buses in the past month have caused their children to miss class time and have left their families frustrated, scrambling and not knowing what to expect one day to the next. They tell of missing work on the days buses haven’t come and seeing their children arrive home in urine-soaked clothes on the days buses come more than an hour late.

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City officials have acknowledged that service has been unreliable and point to a national bus driver shortage and staff call-outs as forcing them to make complex decisions about routes. To help address the issue, they created a website that lists which routes are running late and increased the reimbursement amount parents can receive if they arrange for alternative transportation. But families say that the website has been inaccurate at times and that finding other rides is not as simple as it sounds. Many of the students have profound needs that prevent their parents from just putting them in an Uber and sending them to school.

On an especially frustrating day, when his daughter’s bus didn’t arrive and the website didn’t reflect it was canceled, Longenecker sent an email to officials. In it, he made a point about the value placed on different city services.

“If city residents no longer had trash pickup and the reason was a ‘driver shortage’ and residents were told they could self-transport their trash to a transfer station and be reimbursed for their mileage or Uber fees, it would be a firestorm/crisis that would make national news,” he wrote. “I’m sure it would be resolved within a week, however expensive it was and whatever creative solution was needed. But some intellectually disabled students not getting bus transportation for weeks on end?”

He didn’t have to finish that thought. It was clear what followed that question mark: Not enough.

Parents of disabled students deserve bus service they can count on to get their children to and from school safely each day. City officials say they are working on providing that, and they have taken important steps in that direction. But families are right to demand they do more and do it quicker, because the bus problem isn’t just a transportation issue. It has disrupted the days of the city’s most vulnerable residents and left their caretakers with a growing loss of trust in the city.

“It is clear that they don’t care,” said Valencia Roye, whose 9-year-old daughter, Ava, has Down syndrome and relies on the city for transportation to and from school. “They don’t care at all.”

Roye said she used money she had been saving for Ava’s birthday presents to pay for a Lyft ride to get her daughter to school one day. Other days, when the bus hasn’t shown up, she has kept her daughter home. She recalled one morning when her daughter, who doesn’t communicate through talking, let her know she was tired of waiting.

“She was just over it,” she said. “She sat down and just took off her shoes.”

Roye said recently the city has been sending a van to pick up her daughter and other children, but she doesn’t know if that van will continue to come next week or the week after that.

“I don’t know what to expect,” she said. “That’s a really daunting feeling — not knowing what’s going on.”

State Superintendent of Education Christina Grant addressed the concerns of families in a written statement.

“We know that families have not been receiving the timely, reliable service they expect and deserve, and we are working diligently to meet the needs of our students,” she said.

Her statement described the bus driver shortage, along with an average of 100 staff call-outs per day, as leading the Office of the State Superintendent of Education’s Division of Student Transportation (OSSE DOT) to make complex decisions to serve as many students as possible. Among them: “combining routes, sending drivers and attendants out to complete multiple routes consecutively, and as a last resort, dropping and not servicing some routes.”

In addition to increasing the reimbursement rate and creating a website to show bus delays, OSSE — which oversees the operation of more than 500 buses that serve more than 3,700 students — has contracted with private transportation vendors, launched a $2,500 employee attendance incentive and plans to hold a hiring fair next week.

“While we are seeing some progress, we understand there are still ongoing challenges, including late pickups, longer ride times, and the need for families to make separate travel arrangements,” Grant said. “We also know that these challenges are impacting families and students in ways beyond getting to and from school each day, and we are doing everything in our power to address these issues and improve service.”

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Elizabeth Daggett, whose 12-year-old son, Henry, has been relying on the city for transportation since he was 3, posts which bus routes are delayed on Twitter each morning. On Feb. 3, she posted: “Back up to 101 routes impacted on #SchoolDay19 & the end of #Week4. Situation is just so exhausting for #disabled students & families. Burden shouldn’t be on us!”

“I wasn’t an activist on behalf of other people, but now I am,” Daggett told me. “This situation has made me into one. When you have a disabled child, you’re just trying to get through the day. And when you have support you have relied on fall through, it just causes chaos. It’s overwhelming.”

She said the current bus problems represent a new low for OSSE, but there have long been communication issues that have left parents not knowing where their children are or when they might arrive at school or home. She recalled putting her son on a bus one morning several years ago, only to later get a call from someone at his school asking if he was coming. No one from OSSE had called to tell her that her son’s bus had been in an accident, she said.

“At what point will change finally happen?” she said. “I don’t want it to just go back to the way it was. I want it to be fixed.”