Transporting Special Needs Students: Special Education Students Have Legally Protected Transportation Rights That Districts Must Address

Article excerpt

SPECIAL EDUCATION COSTS in K12 schools are rising significantly across the nation. For example, in Massachusetts the districts in Saugus and Lynn are projected to increase spending more than $1 million next year. Escalating energy charges and resulting transportation costs are primary causes for the budget hikes, especially since Massachusetts requires schools to educate disabled students from ages 3 to 22. In addition, schools are required to transport special needs students to outside placements if their needs cannot be met within the districts. And while districts in states including California are instituting bus fees and asking more students to walk to school to cope with out-of-control budgets, this is not possible for special education students, who have legally protected transportation rights that districts must address.

While school administrators are generally familiar with educational responsibilities under federal law to serve students with disabilities, they may be less aware of legal requirements to these same students regarding transportation to and from school. Compliance deficiencies in this area can leave special needs students underserved and render districts vulnerable to costly litigation. The following is a summary of legal obligations, potential policy pitfalls, and practical ways that districts can comply with the laws.

Legal Obligations

The two major laws governing the transportation of special needs students are the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEIA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The following are the pertinent provisions.

IDEIA

This federal act requires that public schools that receive federal funding must identify eligible students with disabilities and provide those students with special education and related services. Each student receiving services under IDEIA must have an individualized education program (IEP) created by a team of parents, school professionals and perhaps others.

Under IDEIA, schools must also provide the transportation necessary for a child to benefit from the IEP, but schools are not required to provide specialized transportation merely for the convenience of students or their parents.

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Examples of necessary special education transportation include:

* Accommodating a student using a wheelchair by providing a bus that uses a wheelchair lift, and a driver or attendant who is able to operate the lift.

* Providing a qualified aide to accompany a child on the bus as necessary, to manage the child's behavior or administer any necessary health assistance.

* Structuring a bus route so that a student can be the "last on, first off," or providing a ride to school by car or public transportation.

* Providing a ride to school by car, public transportation, or by paying a parent round-trip school-to-home mileage for transporting a child when it is inappropriate for a child to ride with peers.

When providing transportation to a student as a required service under the IDEIA, a school must provide this service at no cost to the student in the "least restrictive environment" (LRE). This means that a student with a disability should be transported whenever possible with nondisabled peers.

Section 504

If a school is not required to provide transportation for a student with special needs under the IDEIA, the school may still be required to provide such transportation under Section 504. In public schools, Section 504 mandates the following:

* It prohibits schools from discriminating against students because of their disabilities.

* It requires schools to provide students having disabilities with reasonable accommodations, such as transportation assistance, to participate on equal footing with nondisabled peers.

Policy Pitfalls

Districts meet mandates every day, but common pitfalls can be costly and lead to lawsuits. …