ICYMI – Class Action Lawsuit Filed Against OSSE Over Unsafe and Unreliable Transportation Services

AJE knows that DC families have struggled to get their children to school because of OSSE-DOT’s persistent failures to provide transportation.  We have included this in our testimony to Council over the last several years, as have many parents, and other organizations in the community.  In an attempt to improve services, on March 7th parents and guardians of children with disabilities living in the District of Columbia (DC), along with The Arc of the United States, filed a class action lawsuit against DC’s Office of the State Superintendent for Education (OSSE) for failing to provide safe, reliable and effective transportation to and from schools for children with disabilities, thereby denying students equal access to their education and unnecessarily segregating them from their peers.

The case is Robertson v. District of Columbia and has been filed in the US District Court for the District of Columbia and the parents and guardians are represented by Shira Wakschlag and Evan Monod of The Arc of the United States; Kathy Zeisel of DC’s Children’s Law Center; Kaitlin R. Banner, Margaret F. Hart, and Chelsea Sullivan of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs; and Margaret H. Warner, Eugene I. Goldman, Theodore E. Alexander and Christopher M. Shoemaker of McDermott Will & Emery LLP.

What AJE families say about the litigation

“Unreliable and unsafe transportation for my children has interfered with my ability to get to work on time and regularly prevents my children from getting to school at all.  My children have required therapy to recover from the trauma they experienced on the bus and I just don’t trust OSSE-DOT anymore, especially because of the lack of empathy I’ve experienced when I have reached out to OSSE for help with a problem.  It is ridiculous that I’ve had to litigate transportation services for my kids and I am glad parents are demanding DC do better”  – TL, AJE parent of multiple children with disabilities.

“It isn’t right that for years I spent time every year before the start of the school year double-checking their work and making sure that OSSE-DOT, my child’s LEA and the nonpublic school are all on the same page.  Parents shouldn’t need to do that, I am a mom – I should not have to know what a TRF [transportation request form] is and how important it is for the bell times to be correctly entered into the system for my children to get to school on time” –  Molly Whalen, parent of two students with disabilities and AJE board member.

“Even when you win at hearing, the relief that you receive doesn’t even begin to cover what you actually lost when the bus doesn’t arrive on time.  You are still out lost wages, and the reimbursement rate is not adequate to cover what you spend re-arranging your morning, the cost of alternative transportation, and the time you spend doing all this because you can’t count on OSSE-DOT.  It is like even when you win, you still lose.” NR, parent and AJE Parent Leadership Academy graduate.

“I don’t want reimbursement months later.  I want a school bus that safely takes my child to school on time every day and brings them home every day on time.  I just want OSSE-DOT to do what they say they will do and I don’t think that is too much to ask for.”  JJ, parent and AJE Parent Leadership Academy graduate.

What AJE staff are saying about the litigation

“OSSE-DOT’s persistent organizational failures have caused students with disabilities and their parents to be deprived of their civil rights and human rights for years, without any kind of due process at all.  I am glad that the court has an opportunity to make it clear what OSSE’s transportation failures actually do – deny children their civil rights by functionally excluding them from school.  I hope the court is able to create a remedy that will be sustainable and protect the rights of students with disabilities for years into the future.”  Akela Crawford, Director of Legal Services.

“Transportation for students with disabilities has been a notorious problem for years, causing cascading problems for families who are just trying to get their children to school.  The stories I hear from families often make me think of Kafka – the bus is hours late with no notification and when the family tries to file a complaint with the OSSE-DOT Parent Resource Center (PRC), after the PRC keeps them on hold for an hour , they won’t give the parent a number for the complaint they are trying to file, saying they don’t assign numbers to complaints, then when the parent calls back to check on the status of the complaint a week later (and another hour on hold), the PRC asks for the complaint number!  We hear from parents whose children were dropped off at the wrong school or home address, only to have OSSE blame the school, and the school blames OSSE.  It is a maddening system and parents deserve better.”  Maria Blaeuer, Director of Programs and Outreach

“Unreliable transportation limits the ability of students with disabilities and their families to engage with the school community and is a huge source of stress and anxiety for families.  It functions as an invisible tax on families of students with disabilities, they either have to deal with the perpetual uncertainty of wondering if and when OSSE-DOT will arrive, or take on that burden themselves to have some certainty and ability to plan their lives, meaning that they are now shouldering the cost of something that a government agency is receiving taxpayer dollars to do.  Even if the family files for reimbursement (which is another invisible tax) they are still not being compensated for the true cost to them of doing what OSSE-DOT is supposed to do.  Demanding better services for students with disabilities is an important step in breaking the link between disability and poverty.” –  Amelia French, Director of Advocacy.

What the attorneys for the parents and guardians say about the litigation

“DC was under court supervision after a lawsuit for the exact same problem until 2012. Although the District had shown they were moving in the right direction then, now we are moving back to where we once were despite years of parents and community leaders working together to attempt change through local advocacy efforts,” said Kathy Zeisel, Director of Special Legal Projects of the Children’s Law Center and counsel for the plaintiffs. “We can no longer plead and hope for change. We’re taking action to ensure DC children receive the education they deserve.”

“The District’s failure to provide safe, reliable, and appropriate transportation to students with disabilities is part of a trend where the District does not live up to its obligations to children and families,” said Kaitlin Banner, Deputy Legal Director of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs and plaintiff counsel. “We hope this lawsuit creates the systemic changes we need for students to get to school safely and on time so they can learn.”

“Children with disabilities are missing critical education and related services, all of which are necessary for them to receive a free appropriate public education guaranteed under the IDEA,” said Margaret Warner, a Partner at international law firm McDermott Will & Emery and counsel for the plaintiffs. “OSSE’s transportation system that provides these services continually fails to reasonably support DC students’ special education, as mandated by their IEPs.”

“The buses meant to help children with disabilities build their education and futures are instead perpetuating their exclusion. This is not just a matter of tardiness or inconvenience. It’s stealing children’s opportunities to learn, grow, and connect with their peers,” said Shira Wakschlag, Senior Director of Legal Advocacy & General Counsel of The Arc of the United States, a non-profit that works to promote and protect the civil and human rights of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. “This systemic failure segregates students with disabilities from their peers and deprives them of equal access to education in violation of the law. When school buses become barriers themselves, we need to fight to ensure that no child is left stranded.”

Are you struggling with OSSE-DOT transportation?  Do you have a transportation story to share?  Need resources to help you navigate OSSE-DOT?

D.C.’s Children’s Law Center offers guidance on filing complaints and provides opportunities for families to share their experiences about OSSE-DOT transportation.

Short video where Maria and Tamiesha talk about the OSSE-DOT’s new stipend program

Special Education Thursday with OSSE-DOT (video)

AJE blog post about OSSE-DOT reimbursement process

AJE Recent Newsletters which cover OSSE-DOT – Early March and Mid-March   


Additional Links and Resources about the litigation

DC’s OSSE Sued for Failure to Provide Safe and Reliable School Transportation, Denying Disabled Students Access to Education 

Parents Sue OSSE-DOT for Better Transportation Services

Select Media Coverage

School Transportation News – DC back in hot water  (about this litigation)

Washington Post – It shouldn’t take a lawsuit (about this litigation)

Students With Disabilities Face Barrage Of School Bus Delays in D.C. 

D.C. Parents Demand Clarity From OSSE on Continuing Bus Delays 

OSSE-DOT’s hiring challenges

OSSE-DOT’s challenges during the return to school

Parents’ struggle with unreliable transportation (video)

District Government Regains Control of Special Education Services (OSSE press release from 2012 about the end of earlier transportation litigation)

Washington Post – Special Education Bus Serice Stays Under Court Supervision  (2011 article about earlier transportation litigation)

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