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School bus service is better, but Seattle special education students may be left behind

The transportation crisis in Seattle Public Schools may have a long-term impact on the most vulnerable children in the district, including special education students.

Many school buses have run late this fall – sometimes by hours – because of a shortage of drivers.

Bus service is improving. But some children who missed school because of tardy buses now have to play catch-up.

Hamdi Jabir, who's in fifth grade at Bailey Gatzert Elementary School, spends most of his day in a special education classroom.

Hamdi has profound autism. His morning lessons at school include life skills, like how to use utensils to eat, how to go to the bathroom and hand-washing.

But Hamdi has missed these lessons for most of the school year. His school bus was around two hours late for more than a month.

"Before, the kids would wake up and leave this house at 7 o’clock. But now, they have to stay all the way to 9:10, 9:30," Aliya Mumed, Hamdi’s mother, said through an interpreter.

Mumed is from Ethiopia. She doesn’t have a car, so she can’t drive Hamdi and his brother, Hamza, 7, and sister, Biftu, 9, to school. Walking is nearly impossible, because Hamdi gets scared by sirens and street lights, and takes off running.

"If he sees any bus going by, he’ll just sit down and say ‘I need to get on this bus," Mumed said.

The school district wouldn’t return her calls, Mumed said, so she went to the district office. There, she said she was told: "Not only you guys. There’s a lot of families that are suffering. You need to wait. We can’t do anything else for you."

The bus finally started coming on time this week.

But Mumed worries her children have all fallen far behind — especially Hamdi and Biftu, who are both in special education.

Seattle Public Schools spokesperson Tim Robinson said the district is working on a letter for special education families "to let the families know that they have the opportunity to seek compensation if the buses are making them wait."

Robinson said the make-up time for students could come before or after school, on the weekends, or another time.

"It’s not like a minute-for-minute," Robinson said. "Like, if they’re late for their education, and, for whatever reason, they were 10 minutes late, it’s not that the district then says, okay, we owe you 10 minutes. It’s more kind of organic and realistic."

Education attorney Shannon McMinimee takes issue with that terminology. "To say that that’s more organic, that’s an odd phrase," she said. "It’s not one that you hear in the land of special education law.”

Federal special education law protects students' rights to the services they are promised in their education plans, McMinimee said.

"Many families do not know that, especially if their child is in special education, that transportation is part of their offer of free appropriate public education," McMinimee said. "And that if there's a failure there that's also a failure under federal and state law."

That means the school district is required to make up for any lost education the student was promised.

McMinimee says that the compensatory education might not be minute-for-minute; it could be fewer or more minutes of special education services than a student was promised.

"It’s about, 'What does the student need to be where they should have been if the services were being provided at the outset?'" McMinimee said.

Ideally, she said, the district will be proactive and reach out to families to arrange make-up time, not just wait for parents to ask for it.

For families with other transportation options, the bus delays were just an inconvenience, McMinimee said.

"There's a big issue of equity here," she said. "And how this is going to necessarily disproportionately impact people who can't afford to find other alternatives for getting their kids to school."

Kids like Hamdi, Biftu and Hamza, who kept missing a third of their school day.

Mumed says Hamza’s teacher has promised him extra tutoring time. But she worries about her children who need special education services.

"Just like how they are focusing on Hamza, I want them to focus on Biftu and Hamdi, too," she said. "Whatever they missed, I want them to go back and teach them."

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