State officials say Boston has failed to transport students with disabilities. What must the city do next?
State education officials have found that Boston Public Schools failed to meet its legal obligation to ensure that students with disabilities are safely transported to school, according to a recent letter to city school officials.
And they are pushing the district to make it right — quickly.
The state’s 40-page “letter of finding” is an official response to the October 2022 complaint filed jointly by Greater Boston Legal Services and Massachusetts Advocates for Children. And it paints a maddening picture of inadequate service for some of the district’s most vulnerable students and their families.
The letter, sent last Friday, demands that BPS commit to even more hurried improvements. By March 15, district staff will have to draw up plans to better communicate transportation information to families — in simple English as well as families’ primary languages.
In the same two-week period, they’ll also have to develop a rubric for restitution: compensating families who had to pay out of pocket for transport, and offering compensatory services to affected students, like make-up learning time.
Parents hope those and other deadlines will be an important spur for Massachusetts’ largest school district.
“None of the families involved should have had this be their experience,” said Jakira Rogers, a program director at Massachusetts Advocates for Children, which helped shape the complaint. “So this is the beginning of accountability.”
Here are three takeaways from parents’ complaints, as well as the state’s findings:
1. Having harmed students, Boston will need to take corrective measures
Friday’s letter gives capsule summaries of experiences of seven anonymous students with disabilities in Boston. All seven, according to the state, were denied at least part of their entitlements under state and federal law — and the district will have to provide targeted assistance starting next month.
The most extreme instance was of brothers “Ali and Ahmed Doe,” who were denied “any transportation services” for a period of seven weeks this fall, for lack of a “seizure trained” bus monitor. (The boys’ individualized education plans, or IEPs, require one.)
In some cases, the district didn’t know whether monitors were available on given buses; in others, it said individual schools are responsible for making sure those monitors were familiar with the students they were serving.
Rogers says she has heard from parents that the district “actively encouraged families to [forego] services” — like one-on-one bus monitors — to improve their chances of getting reliable transportation.
“That’s unacceptable,” Rogers said. “The district should never be discouraging services that were put in the IEP for a reason.”
A more daunting, longer-term goal for the district is the need to “address… the lack of qualified bus monitors” by May 15.
Systemwide, the report found that Boston has 35% to 40% fewer monitors than it needs — a total shortfall of roughly 400 workers. That’s despite an effort to increase signing bonuses earlier this fall.
2. This letter adds urgency — and deadlines — to an already-busy season
Boston school leadership is under a state mandate to step up its game in multiple problem areas this year. The so-called “systemic improvement plan” details multiple areas for improvement in the district, and carries the risk of a state takeover in response to inadequate progress.
For instance, BPS must revamp its long-troubled approach to students learning English — and its inclusion of students with disabilities in general-education classrooms — all while fostering safety in schools. Meanwhile, it also has to step up data gathering and make its buses run on time.
Now – through the new mandates affecting students with disabilities – it must add more detailed and specific transportation goals to that mix.
In addition to planning to staff up bus monitors, by May 15, the district must also find ways to address uncovered routes, update its reimbursement protocol, and develop “backup transportation coverage at no cost” when there is no bus serving students’ IEP needs on a given day.
Finally, DESE expects the district to show its work: throughout the spring, the state will expect documentation, from sample written notifications to lists of affected students.
Rogers said all that effort could put the district on track to make good on its promise of greater inclusion systemwide: “You have to remember that inclusion starts at the beginning of the day. If a student is excluded from the bus, that’s not inclusion,” Rogers said.
She added that some families didn’t learn about transportation gaps, or their right to reimbursement, because they didn’t receive information in their preferred language.
Roxi Harvey — chair of the Boston SpEdPAC, which represents students with disabilities and their families — hopes that the state is providing specific goals, a sense of urgency and “a form of accountability” that was absent before.
“It’s not enough to say, ‘yeah, yeah, yeah — we trained our bus drivers and monitors.’ It’s not enough to say, ‘Oh, we let families know they can be reimbursed.’ This time around, they’re also asking for documentation,” Harvey said.
3. The city shows signs of being ready to tackle its transportation shortcomings
Transportation has been an uncommonly large expense for the Boston Public Schools for years now. But the district is well-situated to address it now, especially given the latest nudge from the state.
In a statement, BPS Superintendent Mary Skipper wrote, “Our team continues to address the systemic challenges and ongoing inconsistencies with transportation for students with disabilities. We are committed to implementing measures to ensure safe, reliable, on-time transportation for all Boston students.”
The district has met with advocacy groups about the monitor shortage, and pledges to fulfill the goals laid out by the state education department, in part with a new Transportation Advisory Council and a new human resources manager for transportation.
With federal relief funds still unspent, and record-high budgets from the mayor, Roxi Harvey says even district officials concede that “money is not the problem” here.
“I don’t think any family, or guardian, in Boston would say, to save a dollar, let’s give up on these students — we’re past that,” Harvey said.
Appearing on WBUR's Radio Boston on Monday, Mayor Michelle Wu said she hopes a new $50 million initiative will help special education services better “follow” city students, rather than being sequestered in a few select schools far from students’ homes.
That said, there are new facets of the problem to consider. For instance, the January report on transportation from the Council of the Great City Schools noted a 70% increase in the number of students whose IEP or 504 plans call for a 1:1 bus monitor in the past five years.
Rogers suggested that may be due to “over-assignment” of Black and Latino students to special education classrooms.