With just two wheelchair-accessible buses, is Fresno Unified failing its disabled teachers?

An incident that involved a Fresno School teacher with a disability who was forced to crawl on her stomach to get on a bus rather than delay a field trip with her elementary school class is being investigated by the district.

Jackie Esquivel, a teacher at Ayer Elementary, was forced to crawl up the stairs of a school bus to board for a field trip despite requesting and receiving assurances from the district that an “inclusion” bus would be provided. The Snafu could result in disciplinary action for someone, a Fresno Unified spokesperson told The Bee, adding that it could not provide more details because it was a personnel issue.

Esquivel reported the incident to to the Fresno Teachers Association and released images and videos of the incident. “I am tired of being treated as less than by the district. It’s not just about me; it’s about ensuring that all educators with disabilities are treated with the respect and dignity they deserve,” she said in the statement from the FTA.

According to FTA President Manuel Bonilla, Esquivel has been overwhelmed by the incident and is not speaking with media. Bonilla said the incident is not isolated.

“The reason why you saw those images is because she says over the last 15 years, that has happened multiple times. … The wrong bus has been sent multiple times, and in the past, what she had to do is wait multiple hours in order for them to correct it,” Bonilla said in an interview with The Bee.

“On this particular case, the field trip was only about an hour and a half, so she knew if they waited they might miss the entire thing. She said, ‘I can’t. I don’t want to do that to my students.’”

The school district only has two inclusion buses, the district said, though it has more smaller student buses with wheelchair accessibility. The district confirmed the numbers with The Bee.

District spokesperson Nikki Henry confirmed that Esquivel made the bus request and the teacher received confirmation that the inclusion bus would be provided. Henry declined to answer details about why the request didn’t come through or why the bus didn’t show up due to the ongoing investigation could lead to disciplinary action, which must be kept confidential and the process questions could be identifying to staff involved.

Henry said that in general there is a formal process to request ADA accommodations, as well as informal ways such as through contacting the transportation department or a work order. The district typically has an ongoing open caseload of about 25 from the district’s employees and receives an average of 15 new requests per year. However, the number is less of an accurate representation because there are informal requests, Henry said.

The district couldn’t provide data exclusively about transportation accommodations, because the current transportation request system does not keep track of the number of inclusion requests on an aggregate basis. Fresno Unified’s school board has approved the funding for a new transportation system for this budget year, and the team is meeting with labor partners to implement it, Henry said.

“However, we have access to 22 First Student inclusion buses that regularly help out with field trip support. We are also in contract with Fresno EOC (Transit Systems) which has inclusion buses and contract with charter companies which also have inclusion buses,” Henry said.

Fresno Unified owns 106 buses to transport 15,000 students to and from schools daily. It also fulfilled 1,122 field trips in the first half of the 2023-24 school year, written in The Blue Bird quarterly newsletter by the district’s transportation department in the January 2024 edition.

Bonilla said that the district did not do enough in this case.

“It’s about a culture where everything is on the teacher: She has to call. She has to make the arrangement. She has to call two weeks before to make sure that they’re following; one week before to make sure. She’s following up a day before to make sure that they’re doing everything right,” Bonilla said. “And then on the day of (the trip), it didn’t happen.

“So it’s always on the teacher to figure out and to verify instead of the support coming the other way.”

Bonilla said the incident was unacceptable and the association immediately called the district leadership. Superintendent Bob Nelson soon released an apology video Feb. 15, saying the district was “determined to identify, rectify and hold accountable any and all mistakes that were made along the way.”

He also said FUSD was reaching out to a statewide disability rights group in the hopes of establishing a permanent partnership to better the district, and ensure incidents like this never happen again.

The statement from FTA on Feb. 16 called on the district to expand the availability of inclusion buses, provide comprehensive training on ADA policies for all bus drivers and implement accountability measures

“No educator should ever be subjected to such degrading treatment, especially when it could have been easily prevented with proper planning and provision of accommodation. While we are appreciative of Superintendent Nelson’s tightly-crafted statement addressing this incident, words are merely that – words,” the statement said.

Bonilla also said not all bus drivers are trained on ADA courses.

“It’s a voluntary system, the district will pay for the training, but it’s just voluntary as to who attends to it,” Bonilla said.

Fresno Unified responded that additional diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility training is coming to the transportation department within this school year, dates are yet to be set.