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 Ask the Attorney - Q and A


Question:  My child rides the bus to school. Is there something in the law that addresses what a 'reasonable' length of time is for a child with special needs to be on a bus? From your experience, how can a parent effectively deal with transportation issues, including being reimbursed for providing our own transportation?

Answer:  The issues relating student transportation are complex and the outcome very much dependent on the facts of each individual situation. At the same time, there are some general legal and common sense principals that apply.

First, consider the geographic diversity we have in Michigan. We have school districts in the southeast portion of the state that are at best a few miles from end to end. At the same time, in the UP and northern Michigan there are districts where a two-hour drive (in good weather) from end to end may not be uncommon. Therefore, what may be reasonable to either the school officials or parents in one part of the state may be unreasonable in another.

In terms of special needs students, the most important element is that the IEP or 504 plan clearly identifies the student's need for transportation. In addition, if a need is identified, the specific accommodations relating to the transportation in terms of equipment or services are clearly spelled out in writing and attached to the IEP or 504 plan.

In terms of time on the bus, how a school reacts to that claim may well be dependent on the mix of students on the bus and where the bus is going. If the bus has only special needs students on it, if these students are subject to a longer ride than regular education students then one would expect the school to accommodate the special needs student in some fashion rather than risk a discrimination complaint to OCR. Of course, when you are dealing with center-based programs outside the district, the issue becomes even more complicated as the related issue is if the student could be accommodated in their local school.

To avoid long bus trips, and for other safety related reasons, I have had parents speak with me about providing their own transportation and seeking reimbursement. From my experience for the school to agree to reimbursement, unless there is a discrimination issue, it will be the presence of other issues that will cause a school to consider alternate parent provided transportation. One issue would be if the length of the ride, the lack of equipment or services are in some way is detrimental to the student's education. For example, a long ride on backcountry roads may trigger a seizure, etc. Another question whose answer may prompt a discussion of parent-supplied transportation is whether there are staff persons on the bus with proper equipment and training to handle medical emergencies? In these situations, the school may understandably be interested in avoiding the potential liability and cost associated with these high risk transports.

In terms of actual time on a bus, there are cases where the factors discussed above where not present, or as often happens where not proven to the satisfaction of the hearing office or judge. In one case I looked at, the child being in transit for over one and one-half hours each way (three hours out of a six or seven hour school day) was found acceptable.

As with most issues involving special education or "504 only" eligible students, transportation issues, the parents with or without an advocate, need to affirmatively and non-emotionally address the issues with the student's IEP or 504 team with the goal being the written commitment of the schools to provide a well defined transportation plan. If a parent is interested in taking over this responsibility from the school, my experience would suggest that once agreement is reached (or was previously reached) that the school needs to provide the student with transportation, it is appropriate to discuss with the team any factors that suggest that it would be a "win-win" situation for the parent to provide the transportation and be reimbursed by the school.

As with all agreements, as memories and understandings fade with time and as staff changes are always possible, any understanding needs to be well documented and attached to the IEP or 504 plan.

Hope this helps

John Brower, JD
Education Law center, PLLC


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