Karen Gao, a 39-year-old pharmacist from Dyker Heights, was supposed to start a new job in September, the same week as her five-year-old son Matthew’s first week of kindergarten. Matthew is autistic, and she’d spent months on the phone with the city’s Office of Pupil Transit trying to confirm his bus route to a specialized school in Park Slope. Even still, the bus was unmanageably late each morning and afternoon.
“I was getting him to school every day, either by Uber or the bus or the train, which is hard for him because his anxiety level goes up,” Gao told Gothamist at a meeting of special needs parents at the Department of Education in Manhattan on Thursday.
“I didn’t go in [to work] for three weeks because I had to constantly bring him in,” she added. “And it was hard. As a pharmacist, I have to be there physically. I can’t be like, ‘Okay let me leave for two hours to come back.’”
Dozens of parents questioned the city’s head of pupil transportation, Kevin Moran, on Thursday following a tense first month of school plagued with delays.
Bus companies have reported an average of 500 delays per day on vehicles transporting special needs kids, nearly double the rate from five years ago, according to a report from THE CITY and Chalkbeat. And in September a driver dropped one of Gao’s son’s classmates, a nonverbal five-year-old, at the wrong school. Weeks later Moran fired one of his top staffers, Alexandra Robinson, who was named in a critical probe of the office and had been tasked with rolling out a glitchy GPS system parents had hoped would help them determine their child’s location in real time.
“The parents were given a false hope,” said Paullette Healy, 45, a member of the Citywide Council on Special Education, whose 12-year-old autistic son Lucas travels 90 minutes each morning and afternoon. “In the previous years there have been tons of times my son can’t get to school. Last year he was out 52 days.”
“This is a systemic problem because unfortunately there aren’t enough programs for a child with autism when they need a smaller setting,” she added.
According to the DOE, the majority of the city’s 5,800 special education bus routes cover more than ten miles, while general education routes are five miles long or less. Four percent of the special education routes cover 30 miles or more.
“Two-thirds of our routes serve special education students each day, and the vast majority of these routes go across school district lines,” said DOE spokeswoman Miranda Barbot in a statement to Gothamist. “We continue to see a decrease in calls year over year, and remain committed to improving service for students and families….”
Being out of contact with a child for hours is especially stressful when that child has a disability, said Daniella, a 36-year-old mom from the East Village who withheld her last name to protect her three-year-old daughter’s privacy. Frequently, she says, her daughter doesn’t get home from her Upper West Side school until two or three hours after dismissal.
“My daughter comes home hysterically crying every day,” Daniella said. “She’s basically one of the most vulnerable populations: a preschooler with a disability. And that means, you know, that it stinks that she falls through the cracks.”
Others complained of long, tense bus trips where small children sit alongside older kids. “There’s bullying, name calling, there’s inappropriate touching,” said Healy, who has been fielding complaints from parents. “How do you not expect a child to act out when they’ve been sitting on the bus for two hours?”
During a twenty-minute presentation, Moran offered parents his cell-phone number, and urged them to call and text him with issues. He also touted a new contract with the rideshare service Via, which the DOE says will route buses around traffic and allow all parents to check on their children’s location in real time through an app—though not until next September. For the first time, bus drivers will be explicitly required to turn on their GPS devices. “The excitement for Via is very real,” Moran said.
As for concerns about mixing age groups, he added, “It’s something we could look at. We have a lot of campuses across the city that commingle kindergarten through grade 12.”
‘“I think [an app] can help. I’m actually happy,” said Grisel Cardona, 29, a single mom of three from the South Bronx. Commercial tracking devices like AngleSense, which cater to families with autistic children, are too expensive, she added. Her sons, ages nine and two, are both autistic.
But parents of older children said they need more assurances, and asked for steep fines for bus companies and more opportunities to share feedback with the DOE.
Trishia Bermudez, a 35-year-old mom from Rockaway, was particularly frustrated at the end of the night. Her 6-year-old son Matthew has a rare chromosome deletion. She says she learned this week from a bus driver that Matthew has been arriving late to school, sometimes missing breakfast. “For a child that’s 28 pounds, medically complex, that can result in a whole bunch of issues for me,” she said. “You’re trying to set him back further than he already is.”
The meeting was “a joke,” Bermudez continued. “It’s still going to be the never-ending cycle of unresolved issues. How do we systematically solve all of the problems? And it’s not waiting for Via. That’s not going to help me, because I’m having issues now.”