Parents fight school for disabled They have problems with transportation for their children


Like many parents of handicapped children, Sue Michau is often embroiled in controversy over the rights of the disabled.

She fought for summer school programs so that her 3-year-old son does not lose hard-won skills acquired during the school year. She lobbied for accessible playgrounds. Now that Ryan is learning to use a walker, she does not want school staff to put him in a wheelchair.

"Any parent of a disabled child has an obligation to put in time in the classroom, too," she said. "You have to monitor what they are doing for your child."

Now, Michau is preparing to battle Carroll County pupil transportation officials.

In a July 29 letter, county Department of Special Education officials notified Michau that Ryan had been accepted into Head Start, a program that prepares preschool children for kindergarten. They offered him a place at Robert Moton Elementary in Westminster, about 25 miles from the family home in Woodbine. An established bus route from Woodbine to Westminster would make Ryan's ride about an hour long.

Michau wants a school bus to take her son to the same program at Carrolltowne Elementary School, about 10 miles away.

Bus routes are divided according to school districts and drivers do not deviate from those routes, pupil transportation officials said. They would not comment on individual passengers.

Other parents of disabled children say they, too, have experienced problems with the school transportation office.

Letty Grayson's 2-year-old daughter, Anjali, who has cerebral palsy, will attend the Infant and Toddlers Program at Carroll Springs school in Westminster.

She asked the school transportation office what type of vehicle would transport Anjali and whether she could be picked up at their home -- "a reasonable, appropriate accommodation for a child who is not walking," Grayson said.

Two weeks before school opens, Grayson said she still does not know what type of vehicle will pick up her child, but transportation officials have told her it won't come to her door. She has asked for, but has not received, a copy of policy and regulations.

"They don't bend at all," said Grayson. "They leave it to you to figure out what your rights are."

The county provides transportation to 25,000 students, and "everybody wants us to stop at their door," said Vernon Smith, director of school support services.

Although he could not comment on specific requests, he said the safety of all riders must always take precedence.

"We cannot place buses on unmaintained private roads," Smith said. "Parents have a responsibility to get their children to and from established bus stops."

Jane Harmon lives two miles from Robert Moton Elementary, where her 5-year-old son, Guy, will attend first grade. The developmentally disabled child has seizures if he is awakened too early or abruptly, Harmon said. She has asked the school transportation department that their home be the last stop on the bus route but has received no response.

"I understand the problems with buses, but special needs are just that," Harmon said. "We are looking at convenience for bus drivers, not for the children."

Michau, a founding member of Parents Reaching Out, an activist group for families with disabled members, is familiar with the stories.

"Compassion seems to be the missing ingredient here," she said. "Can't we look at the child as an individual, not as part of a group?"

Federal law requires the county to provide transportation for disabled children enrolled in any of its programs, including Head Start.

"Basically, the public school system is responsible for disabled children from birth to age 21," said Bill Wilson, a Head Start program specialist in Washington. "When transportation is not available, program funds can be used to provide it."

Transportation is available for disabled students, and geography generally determines which school those children attend, Smith said.

"We work hard every year to keep ride time down to a minimum," he said. "Unfortunately, because of the vastness of routes, that is not always possible."

Michau wants her son in the Head Start program because it will allow him to interact with nondisabled children, which teachers and his parents agree he needs.

"Because of a transportation issue, I cannot pursue an inclusive placement opportunity for Ryan," Michau said.

Ryan, born with a rare neuromuscular disorder, turns 4 in October and cannot walk or talk. Although no doctor has given her any reassurances, Michau is certain Ryan will walk.

His determination seems to match his mother's optimism. In the past few months, he has gone from crawling to standing and has just started using a walker, she said. He gets a grip on its handles and moves slowly across the floor.

"He is so motivated, almost driven," said his mother.

Of the five Carroll elementaries with Head Start programs, Carrolltowne is closest to the Michau home. "Carrolltowne is only eight miles from home and more a part of his community," Michau said. "Robert Moton is three times that distance and would mean a much longer bus ride."

The Head Start program also is designed to give parents a role in the decisions affecting their children, said Rose Ann Fischer, chairwoman of the local Head Start policy council.

"If Ryan's parents decide Carrolltowne is the best school for him, he should be on a bus that takes him there," Fischer said.

The federal Individual Education Act makes programs such as Head Start Ryan's right, Michau said. She will continue to battle, but she would like the school system to be her ally.

"They wear you out so you don't pursue things," she said. "Parents don't speak out because they are afraid it will come back on their children."

This is a battle Michau intends to win. This month, she expects to put Ryan on a school bus and wave to him as he goes to Carrolltowne.

"He gets so many rejections from so many people and in so many ways," she said. "This is an opportunity for him not be rejected again."

Pub Date: 8/11/96

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