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Autism News

Students With Special Needs Acutely Affected By Bus Driver Shortage

by Hillary Davis, Las Vegas Sun/TNS | November 2, 2021

LAS VEGAS — Octavian Lither is often left waiting at the bus stop each morning to be transported to his northwest Las Vegas middle school.

More times than not, the bus is late. A few times, it arrived after school already started.

But unlike the thousands of other Clark County School District students racking up tardies and absences as the bus driver staffing crisis grinds on, the Walter Johnson Junior High sixth grader has autism and entitled to transportation as part of his learning plan.

Lenny Lither, the boy’s father, is so frustrated he’s lost confidence that officials will solve the driver shortage. “I just don’t see that changing,” Lenny Lither said.

Octavian, 11, is one of 14,695 CCSD students with disabilities who has a designated bus to and from school because it’s listed in his individualized education program, or IEP. Identified special education students have these customized plans that outline how they are to receive their instruction, and services such as speech therapy and busing, appropriate for their individual needs. IEPs have been backed by the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act since 1975.

“I don’t think CCSD actually cares that much about the IEPs and how it’s actually a legal binding contract,” Lither said. He’s willing to file a complaint against CCSD in the future for violating his son’s plan, and he encourages similarly situated parents to join him.

“If this is not remedied, I will have to file a compliance (complaint) stated in wording that they cannot ignore,” he said.

Robin Kincaid is the educational services director for Nevada PEP, a Las Vegas-based educational and advocacy group for families with children with disabilities statewide. She’s heard reports from parents about longer-than-usual bus rides and pickups coming off-schedule.

When a school district doesn’t closely follow a student’s IEP, that could mean the child isn’t getting equal opportunities to an education. And legally, that child’s family can lodge complaints that they’re being discriminated against, she said.

It’s unclear when a parent would have cause for action against CCSD for violating an IEP’s transportation requirements, as it depends on how any particular child is affected by late buses, Kincaid said.

Some could miss their in-school or outside therapies. Others could miss feeding times or have a medical condition exacerbated by being late. Quantitative data helps make a case, Kincaid said.

“We also recognize that the children have unique, individualized needs,” she said.

Responding to parental concerns that the driver shortage could be violating their children’s IEPs, the district said in a statement that “getting students to school is a priority for CCSD. The Transportation Department is looking for innovative solutions to the nationwide driver shortage and has and will continue to improve services and become more efficient throughout the school year.” It did not elaborate.

The district would like to have 1,570 special and “general” education drivers to adequately operate but remains down about 240, a district spokesman said. The shortage hasn’t changed in the last month.

Special ed drivers are trained to work with the added needs of children with physical, developmental and intellectual disabilities, and they earn about $1 an hour more than other bus drivers. The higher wage, though, doesn’t raise the ceiling much — non-special ed drivers make between $15.67 and $19.98 an hour, working as few as 30 hours a week over split shifts.

However, the district did say that shortages of special ed drivers were lower than in general education because it prioritized specialized transportation services.

CCSD launched a partnership recently with the Regional Transportation Commission to allow up to about 4,000 students at 15 high schools to ride the public bus at no cost, eliminating dozens of school bus routes. This will not replace any special ed busing plans, however.

Octavian is high-functioning and academically advanced, his father said. He takes algebra II, typically a high school level course, and attends Johnson for its Mandarin language program because he was born in China.

His dad said his son’s autism affects his social skills, though, and he can go into his own world. Curb-to-curb transportation, where the bus stops outside his house and the school’s front door, offers closer supervision.

Occasionally, Octavian arrives 30 minutes late for the 8:30 a.m. first bell, and one morning he arrived about 10:45 a.m., his father said. Most days, he’s in his first period class 10 minutes late.

But those minutes add up when considering there are 180 days of learning. If he’s 10 minutes late every day, that’s roughly 1,800 minutes, or 30 hours, of lost classroom time in an academic year.

“I want to stress, I don’t blame the bus drivers one little bit,” Lither said. “It’s a ridiculous situation that they have been put into.”

Lither picks his son up from school, partially because of fears the bus would deliver him home at an unreasonable time.

During one of these pickups, Lither asked Octavian when he was last on campus with enough time to get to his first period class before the bell.

“I think that’s only happened once,” Octavian replied.

Lither asked for clarification — once this week or one time this year? “Once this year,” the boy said.

The Lither family isn’t alone in its concerns with the busing shortage.

In one Las Vegas family, the father rides his bicycle to work to free up the family car in case the mother has to rush their child with special needs to school when the bus is late.

Kimberley, who asked to not use her last name, said her second grader has autism, anxiety and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. All of these conditions benefit from a steady routine.

That’s why she is signed up for curb-to-curb busing, her mom said.

But the bus is on time maybe one day a week. It’s been two or more hours late about half a dozen times. Sometimes it doesn’t come at all. Kimberley and her daughter watch the bus on the district’s live-tracking app, and if it turns away from their neighborhood, they get in the car.

The disruption can send the girl to tears and meltdowns. She gets frustrated when the bus is late. When it never arrives, she seems to take it personally.

“‘They forgot me again?’” Kimberley said her daughter says.

“‘Why do they keep doing that?’”

Kincaid said parents giving up and taking their kids to school themselves doesn’t change the fact that CCSD has an obligation.

She knows reversing the driver crisis has no easy fix, but “there really are no passes on that.”

© 2021 Las Vegas Sun
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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