School & District Management

More Students Avoiding Smaller ‘Special’ Buses

By Lisa Fine — February 07, 2001 11 min read
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A group of special education students in a Georgia town used to hide out at the end of each school day until all of the full-size buses had departed. That way, fewer people would see them board the smaller buses for children with special needs.

“They were so embarrassed and afraid of being teased,” remembered Lori von Schmeling, a special education teacher from Cumming, Ga. “The bus ride is such an important part of school, and it angered me so much that it was one more thing that separated them out and made them feel different.”

That experience convinced Ms. von Schmeling that when her own daughter, Lily, started school, things would be different. So 6-year-old Lily, who has Down syndrome, has been riding the regular bus with the other students since entering kindergarten last fall.

Around the country, an increasing number of educators argue that school systems should provide more integrated transportation for students in special education programs. For the first time since what is now called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act guaranteed a free, appropriate public education to students with disabilities in 1975, school districts have started using innovative methods to conquer what some call the final frontier for “inclusion": the bus ride.

In Oregon, one district solved the problem by equipping some full-size buses with wheelchair lifts. A Georgia district decided to pair special education students with student “buddies” without disabilities on big buses. Numerous districts assign aides to regular buses for the first few weeks of school to help acclimate students with disabilities to the new physical and social dynamics.

And in San Diego, educators assign a mixture of students with and without disabilities to both the district’s full- size buses and the smaller buses that historically were used only for students in special education.

Taken together, such efforts may spell the beginning of the end of the scaled-down school bus as an unintended symbol of special education.

“School districts throughout the nation are changing their thinking from the old way of operating two separate bus fleets, one for special education and one for regular education, which was quite segregating” said Linda Bluth, a national special-needs consultant based in Howard County, Md. “In just the last few years, there have been many excellent efforts to realize that the bus ride is truly when the school day begins and ends.”

Size Carries Stigma

Not long ago, the comedian Chris Rock alluded to the negative connotations of the miniature school bus during a routine on cable television.

“When I was in school, the crazy kids took the little bus to class,” he said during a 1999 stand-up comedy special on Home Box Office. “And they got out at 2:30, just in case they went a little crazy.”

Aware of such perceptions, more parents have begun demanding that their children with special needs be served through their school districts’ regular transportation programs, school transportation directors report. At the same time, though, other parents are reluctant to try such an arrangement out of concern for safety or convenience, and they need to be persuaded by school officials to give regular transportation a chance.

Specialized transportation is appealing to many parents because, unlike many full-size buses, small buses have air-conditioning and seat belts. Moreover, the special buses often pick up and drop off students right outside their homes, rather than at bus stops that are sometimes blocks away. Aides also often ride the shorter buses to help students.

“You have parents on both ends of the spectrum,” said Bill East, the executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Special Education. “It’s something that gets worked out at each individual, local level. Local districts are trying to find ways to accommodate the needs and pay for it all.”

Administrators say the use of separate small buses grew out of school districts’ need to transport small numbers of students with disabilities to services provided outside their home districts. But as more students with disabilities attend their local schools, the need for separate transportation has diminished, school transportation directors say.

Special transportation services will always be needed for some students, but districts’ reliance on special transportation could be sharply reduced, Ms. Bluth argues. “Except for in the most severe cases, there is really no excuse not to have disabled students who attend their neighborhood schools ride the bus with their peers,” she said. “Parents and educators should give the regular bus a try as the first option.”

Ms. von Schmeling, for one, says she feels safer knowing Lily is on the bus with the other neighborhood children. She worries that she might never hear about problems on the bus if the girl were accompanied solely by other children with disabilities, many of whom have limited communication capabilities.

“She’s safest in the whole community, where there are people who know Lily and love her as a member of the neighborhood,” Ms. von Schmeling said. “They will look out for her.”

Just as school districts differ in the degree to which they include special education students in regular classrooms, they also vary greatly in their approach to busing. Some districts have taken big steps toward integrated transportation, while others are easing into it more slowly, often because of concerns about costs.

The $8,000 to $10,000 cost of equipping a full-length bus with a wheelchair lift can deter districts, or even put the possibility out of reach, school transportation experts say. Beyond that cost, accommodating students in wheelchairs means less room for other students; one child in a wheelchair takes as much room on a bus as six students in regular seats. Still, transportation directors say that if a lift is installed in the rear of the bus, along with track seating—which can be removed or reinstalled to accommodate wheelchairs— then little seating capacity is permanently lost.

Pay Now or Pay Later?

Some transportation administrators take the view that the money they spend on accommodating students with disabilities now will prevent them from paying more down the road to replace transportation systems rendered obsolete by the trend toward classroom inclusion.

In Oregon’s 35,000-student Salem- Keizer district, 10 of the system’s 135 full-size buses have wheelchair lifts. Officials there began buying the lifts in 1994, when they set a goal for the district of providing more integrated transportation.

The district, which covers 178 square miles, also has 58 small buses. But a mix of students with and without disabilities ride together on them to remove any stigma associated with the shorter buses, said the Salem-Keizer transportation director, John Fairchild.

“Sure, it’s expensive, and a drastic change in the way things have been done in the past,” Mr. Fairchild said. “But as we look at more integrated education service programs at schools in the future, operationally this will be the only service-delivery model that will make sense anymore.”

Robin Leeds, the executive director of the Connecticut School Transportation Association, said she was trying to lower costs by arranging for districts in the state to share full-size buses equipped with wheelchair lifts.

“What’s unfortunate is the whole cost issue,” Ms. Leeds said. “It is going to require a lot more intradistrict and interdistrict cooperation than what we see in Connecticut.”

Some districts that cannot afford wheelchair lifts have found other ways to help more children ride big buses.

“A student has to be pretty severe [in disability] to ride a small bus,” said Peggy West, the assistant special education director in Georgia’s 17,000-student Forsyth County system. “We’ll put a sibling on the bus with them, or pair a student buddy with the disabled student.”

Ms. Bluth, the special-needs consultant, said she had heard of many other districts that ask students to ride small buses with their peers who have disabilities.

“There are some parents who think it is a wonderful idea for their nondisabled student, and others, of course, who are against it,” she said.

Bus Drivers a Key

Training bus drivers to transport students who have special needs is another factor that can help make more inclusive transportation arrangements work, experts say.

Some districts have even started including bus drivers in meetings of school personnel and parents held to craft special education students’ individualized education plans, Ms. Bluth said. “Transportation folks never used to be included at the IEP meetings,” she said. “It’s hard to imagine the bus drivers feeling comfortable about everything if they don’t understand the child’s needs.”

Ms. Bluth said she once mediated a situation involving a student with autism on a regular bus. “The driver refused to move the bus until a student with autism stopped rocking back and forth,” she recalled. “That child cannot control the rocking as part of his disability. When he learned about autism, he felt completely comfortable about it.”

In 1994, a bus driver in Gwinnett County, Ga., tried to have a 1st grader with cerebral palsy removed from a regular county school bus because the student drooled. The bus driver received support from a state legislator, who wrote to the district’s superintendent on the driver’s behalf.

But school officials in the 110,208-student district decided to keep the boy on the bus, and reassigned the bus driver who had complained.

The boy’s mother, Catherine Stefanavage, said her son’s drooling was not profuse and did not endanger others on the bus.

“It would be best not to have special education busing at all,” said Ms. Stefanavage, whose son is now 13 and in 7th grade. “There’s no way our kids are going to have a place in society if they are kept separate.”

In Georgia, district transportation officials stress to bus drivers that they are part of a systemwide philosophy of inclusion, said Sam McCullough, the state’s school transportation director.

“Our entire goal is to have these kids operate in the society like other kids when they get out of the 12th grade,” Mr. McCullough said. “We try to have our local systems accommodate them whenever possible.”

Still, as more parents demand that their children ride big buses, their requests cannot always be accommodated, he said.

For example, one parent wanted the bus driver to carry her child on to the bus because it didn’t have a wheelchair lift, a request that was turned down because such a practice is unsafe, Mr. McCullough said.

The percentage of Georgia’s special education students who ride on specialized buses has been steadily dropping, at a time when the special education population has grown, Mr. McCullough said. Last year, 14 percent of Georgia’s roughly 164,000 special education children rode on special buses, compared with 16 percent of about 135,000 such students in 1995.

One of the goals of a new special-education-inclusion program in Georgia is to reduce the state’s reliance on special transportation, said Gail Wilkins, the state director of student-support services. Under the statewide program, 10 schools have received teachers who are specially trained to teach children with and without disabilities in the same classroom; more schools are scheduled to be added over the next couple of years. With more inclusive classrooms, the need arises for more integrated transportation, Ms. Wilkins said.

“The philosophy that got a lot of us into special education is that we want all kids included in all aspects of life,” she said. “If we know now this new way of transportation is the way of the future, why would it make sense to buy a new bus without a wheelchair lift?”

Parents Play a Part

While some districts alter their transportation methods because of a shift in philosophy, others make changes at the insistence of parents.

In the Northside Independent School District in Texas, for example, one mother was outraged that her son, who is in the high school band and uses a wheelchair, rode in a separate bus to band events. She demanded that the boy ride with the other band members, so the district put a wheelchair lift on the back of a big bus, recalled Ray Turner, the special education transportation director for the 65,000-student district in San Antonio.

“There is a stigma of being the only one to have to ride a separate bus,” said Mr. Turner, who has written several manuals on special education transportation. “I think the student has really benefited. He has a greater sense of pride.”

Kathy Colberg hopes for a similar outcome for her 8-year-old son, Mathew. Initially, Georgia’s Harris County school district allowed the boy to try riding the regular bus despite his Down syndrome. It ended the experiment, however, citing what they said were his behavioral problems as standing up in his seat.

Ms. Colberg contends that district officials didn’t give the boy enough helpor enough of a chance. The family lost its first due process hearing on the issue two years ago, but it has requested another hearing.

Bettye F. Dunlap, the special education director for the 4,300-student Harris County system, declined to comment on the Colberg case because of confidentiality issues.

“I am not giving up,” Ms. Colberg said of her son’s case. “He is dying to get back in the bus. My older kids take the bus. When they leave in the morning and he sees the bus out the window, he’ll raise his hand and cry, ‘me...’”

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A version of this article appeared in the February 07, 2001 edition of Education Week as More Students Avoiding Smaller ‘Special’ Buses


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