Baltimore City Council members called Thursday for strengthened policies and supervision of school transportation for special-needs students — a discussion spurred by the death of a 6-year-old who fell from the back of a moving school bus last month.
In a hearing called by the council's education committee, experts and parents also criticized school bus practices and procedures as insufficient in meeting the needs of special-education students, who make up the majority of students carried by city-owned and -contracted yellow school buses.
The hearing was requested by City Councilman Warren Branch, whose autistic children ride city school buses. "As a father, I was concerned about what had transpired," Branch told school officials of the Dec. 8 death of Jeremy Jennings Jr. The emotionally disturbed city student was being transported to a Baltimore County special-education school by a bus contractor.
Branch said school transportation has been on his radar since last year, when his daughter refused to ride the bus after an incident occurred. He sought to do a ride-along, but his request was denied. Federal government regulations prohibit ride-alongs on school buses, school officials said.
At the hearing, Branch grilled school transportation officials about the level of supervision and evaluation of the bus system, and the competency of workers hired and contracted by the school system.
Keith Scroggins, chief operating officer for the school system, said that about 4,700 students ride yellow school buses, including more than 2,900 who have individualized education plans for special needs. But the city operates only 31 of the 280 yellow buses that transport students.
Bus drivers are trained a total of 21 hours a year, and bus aides receive at least four hours of training annually, Scroggins said. There were two aides on Jeremy's bus, school officials said, and the driver did not adhere to his training to stop when the boy caused an altercation before running the length of the bus and falling out a back door.
Experts who testified at the hearing questioned whether the school system's policies and training were targeted and intensive enough to prevent another tragedy.
"Training is critical," said Ellen A. Callegary, of the Baltimore law firm of Callegary & Steedman PA, which focuses on special-education, disability and family law issues. "Training can't be sitting in a room with a PowerPoint and a flip chart."
The policies and procedures that do exist, other experts said, don't address situations such as Jeremy's. While school transportation employee manuals describe the appropriate dress for drivers and aides, they don't outline what to do in an emergency besides dial 911.
Leslie Margolis, managing attorney of the Maryland Disability Law Center, said that in reviewing the school system's operating procedures, she noticed that there are extensive policies on managing medically and physically fragile students.
"What is really striking to me is that there's nothing similar for emotionally fragile kids who make up the large bulk of children who are transported," Margolis testified.
Parents testified about their children being abused on buses and contracted bus companies ruining their students' perfect attendance records — which can be devastating to an autistic child — because they failed to pick up students.
Scroggins said the school system "will take everything we've heard under advisement, and it will be part of our review process already under way."
Branch, who will help form an ad hoc committee to continue investigating student transportation, promised results.
"We're not going to drop it," he said. "This has obviously been a problem for quite some time."