The Philadelphia School District has “systemically failed” to provide safe, reliable transportation to its students attending the public school for blind children, parents and advocates say.
That is: Over the past several years, the buses and vans that bring children to the Overbrook Educational Center in West Philadelphia are often late, and frequently lack safety provisions mandated by the students’ federally mandated individual education plans.
Just ask Monique Dickens, whose visually impaired daughter has coped with transportation problems for as long as she’s attended Overbrook Educational Center: rides that don’t show up or come an hour late, vans that break down, a drop-off that was completely missed.
And Ellis Hamiel, whose daughter needed stitches after her bus driver slammed on the brakes, catapulting her forward until she struck her head on a sharp object. The little girl, who is blind, was not seat-belted, though her special-education plan spells out she should be at all times.
Plus, Hamiel said, “the bus was late. All the time.”
According to school records kept through March for the 2022-23 term, its 13 buses arrived late anywhere from one to 50 times, and by as much as 3 hours, 10 minutes.
Cara McClellan, director of the Advocacy for Racial and Civil Justice Clinic at the University of Pennsylvania’s law school, represents Overbrook Educational Center parents; she first reached out to the school district in May, underscoring the district’s “systemic failure to provide OEC students with adequate transportation” — and not just because of chronically late buses and vans that rob children of instructional time.
Buses, McClellan wrote, should have a harness to secure students during rides, but often do not, “or they are not used. Additionally, buses are required to have an attendant to help students board, disembark, and buckle in. But this requirement is rarely satisfied, and some buses have never had a bus attendant.”
McClellan also flagged a lack of communication — bus drivers or school district personnel often fail to tell parents when buses are running late, often making parents miss work.
“SDP’s systemic failure to provide OEC students with adequate transportation continues to impact students’ ability to attain” a free and appropriate public education, as required by law, McClellan wrote.
The parents and advocates asked for stronger systems to ensure safety, plus periodic audits.
District officials acknowledged the parents’ concerns, meeting with McClellan and promising some fixes.
But four months later, McClellan said not much has changed.
“There’s no indication that they have taken seriously how urgent this is,” said McClellan. “This is dangerous, it needs to be addressed.”
There’s a national shortage of school bus drivers and other school workers — Philadelphia has struggled so much with filling driver positions and having consistent on-time buses that it now pays some parents whose children are eligible for bus service to drive their children to school instead — but the OEC problems aren’t explained away by the labor issues, McClellan said: If you have a driver, then there’s someone to put on a seat belt. If you have a bus, the seat belts should work.
[Labor issues are] “separate from seat-belting students and addressing their IEP requirements,” she said.
The issue is especially pressing for Hamiel, whose visually impaired daughter required a trip to the hospital last spring after her bus ride. Hamiel first learned of the incident when he received a photo of his daughter sporting a deep gash on the bus.
“She wasn’t strapped in,” said Hamiel. “The aide said, ‘The straps haven’t worked all year.’”
Eventually, the child required stitches for her wound. The ride and its aftermath frightened her, Hamiel said.
“She’d tell me, ‘I don’t want to ride the bus anymore,’” said Hamiel.
Both Hamiel and Dickens are frustrated by how transportation affects their children’s education.
Hamiel worked at OEC as a climate staffer, and often had to pick up his children and others stranded by buses in school vans well after classes began.
“My kids didn’t get there until hours after school started sometimes,” said Hamiel. “I would call my wife and say, ‘Where are the kids at?”
OEC’s principal would also sometimes hop in a school van to pick students up, Hamiel and Dickens said.
Monique Braxton, a district spokesperson, said representatives of the district’s transportation services department have met with representatives of the Penn law clinic and OEC’s former principal “to address the safety concerns expressed.”
Safety measures have been enhanced, Braxton said — “including professional development training for bus chauffeurs or drivers and attendants such as CPR, securing wheelchairs, the use of specialized safety equipment, fire and life safety and evacuating students in emergency situations.”
But McClellan said there’s no evidence that the trainings have addressed the issues.
“Doing a one-off training isn’t enough to actually ensure that there’s actually an aide on the bus to ensure basic safety,” said McClellan.
Though it’s just a few weeks into a new school year, parents are already reporting late pickups and missed instructional time, said McClellan.