Class action lawsuit filed against DC’s OSSE; claims students with disabilities denied equal access to education

WASHINGTON (DC News Now) — D.C. parents and guardians of those with disabilities along with The Arc of the United States filed a class action lawsuit Thursday against D.C.’s Office of the State Superintendent for Education (OSSE).

The lawsuit claims that OSSE failed to provide D.C. students who have disabilities with “safe, reliable and effective transportation” to and from their schools. This also denied these students the same, fair treatment to education.

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Senior Director of Legal Advocacy and General Counsel of The Arc, Shira Wakschlag, said in a statement it steals the opportunities of those students to “learn, grow, and connect with their peers.”

“The buses meant to help children with disabilities build their education and futures are instead perpetuating their exclusion,” she stated. “When school buses become barriers themselves, we need to fight to ensure that no child is left stranded.”

The complaint claims that the OSSE Division of Transportation has consistently failed to safely and properly transport students with disabilities by:

  • Arriving extremely late to pick up students from their home, if they show up at all, causing them to miss school.

  • Students get picked up early causing them to miss important instructional time or are left stranded at school without being guaranteed a trip back home.

  • They are being forced to spend a lot of time on board the buses which causes physical and mental harm when they do not have access to food, medication or bathrooms.

  • Bus drivers are not property trained medical personnel and the buses do not have the necessary accommodations and tools needed for children with disabilities for safe rides.

  • The buses can’t be reliably tracked which means family members don’t know where their children are while on board.

Parents of five different students signed onto the class action, including Elizabeth Daggett, who is a parent of a child with disabilities and a plaintiff on the lawsuit.

“Every morning, I wake up and I don’t know if the bus is going to come and I don’t know how that’s going to impact me and my family,” she said.

Daggett’s 13-year-old son relies on OSSE transportation to get to and from school.

“It’s a waiting game. Is the bus going to come at the time it’s supposed to or not?” she said.

Bus delays, cancellations impacting DC’s most vulnerable students

When the bus doesn’t show up, Daggett said there’s a ripple effect that wreaks havoc on her entire family. She and her husband need to figure out how to get their two other children, plus their son, to school. The family has one car and both parents work, meaning someone will be late or missed out entirely.

When the bus is late in the morning or while returning their son home, there can be significant impacts to his health and safety.

“He could miss medication. He could be on the bus for so long he [will have] peed his pants and he’s upset,” Daggett explained. “I’ve heard of other people whose kids have been taken to a [wrong] location. There are just so many concerns and you don’t know what it could be.”

Dagget has testified at multiple city council hearings and has filed petitions against OSSE. With no changes made, she decided to join the lawsuit.

“I’ve done everything I can do and there’s really nothing else so I’m hopeful this will get their attention and actually focus on fixing the system,” she said.

Families on the lawsuit, like Dagget, are seeking to change the “systemic failure” that they say violates federal and state laws — including the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA), Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the District of Columbia Human Rights Act (DCHRA), according to the release.

43% of DC students considered chronically absent last year

Under IDEA, D.C. students with disabilities are supposed to be given free appropriate public education. In that, it must include services and accommodations that are outlined in the students’ individualized education plans that include the necessary transportation, the release stated.

Section 504 of the ADA and the DCHRA mandate that these students have the same educational opportunities as everyone else and forbid unnecessary segregation of students with disabilities, according to the release.

The case, Robertson v. District of Columbia, was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

According to the lawsuit against the OSSE, the office’s publicly reported data showed that in the first five months of the 2023-2024 school year, there were more than 1,000 delays and cancellations. From Jan. 30, 2023, to March 15, 2023, there were more than 1,500 route delays and cancellations.

OSSE transports around 4,100 students with disabilities in the District, according to the lawsuit.

OSSE leadership addresses ongoing delays to bus service

In a response to DC News Now, an OSSE spokesperson said that they do not comment on pending litigation.

The spokesperson said that the office remains committed to offering “safe, reliable, and efficient transportation services” to all D.C. students.

OSSE has deployed creative and urgent strategies to serve our students including contracting with private transportation vendors to cover specific routes, offering attendance incentives to drivers and attendants, working to improve route efficiency, and providing self-transportation reimbursement to families. Upcoming efforts include the launch of our commercial driver’s license (CDL) academy to build a pipeline of bus drivers and continually working to strengthen workplace culture.

Statement from the Office of the State Superintendent of Education

OSSE also said that it had maintained “above a 95% on-time route coverage every day across over 450 daily bus routes” despite a nationwide bus driver shortage.

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