TSD keynote speaker Helfrich discusses the responsibility of IEP and IDEA

FRISCO, Texas – During the 2019-2020 school year, 14% of all public school students in the United States received services under the Disability and Education Act (IDEA), a Education lawyer Betsey Helfrich told attendees on Friday on Transportation for Disabled Students and Special Needs Conference (TSD).

IDEA is a federal law first passed in 1975 that all schools must follow. It states that children with disabilities receive special education and related services, with transportation at the top of the list, to access free and appropriate education so that their unique needs are met. Meanwhile, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 states that school districts receiving federal funding cannot discriminate against qualified students with disabilities. This applies to all aspects of the school, including transportation and other programs like athletics, clubs, and field trips.

Helfrich then discussed several legal cases involving Individual Education Programs (IEPs), in which the needs of students were not addressed. She noted that although transport representatives cannot be present at every IEP meeting, she suggested that transport teams should always be informed and communication should be continuous. In addition, transport should have a say in what services can and cannot be provided.

She noted that during and after the IEP meeting, there must be a clear expectation of what is accepted by both the parent and the school district team, including transportation. For example, are the transport crew and parent on the same page when it comes to what curb-to-curb bus pickup actually means? She added that while there is no legal definition of curb to curb, what matters is the understanding of everyone involved in the planning.

She added that in Missouri where she practices law, parents can now record IEP meetings. This practice can differ from state to state, so know the local privacy law, she advised.

Helfrich noted that IEP teams are required to meet at least once a year. However, she said, if transports need to call a meeting at another time, they have the right to do so. She advised having a clear written agreement with parents and being upfront with them if something unexpected happens. The IEP might need to be changed slightly from time to time, for example when COVID-19 has had a significant impact on education and school transportation.

She said that while it’s amazing what educators and transportation staff have accomplished amid the ongoing pandemic, schools have lost all leniency from federal regulators and the courts. They are required to meet IEP standards again. She reminded attendees that Long-COVID, or the long-term effects of COVID-19 once the virus has run its course, may be eligible for disability under IDEA. However, she added that does not mean that people with such conditions are automatically eligible.

She added that changes are expected, especially in this unprecedented time of shortage of bus drivers. And while there is no law on how long a school must take to make these changes, lawsuits are ongoing. Parents are suing for long periods of time when transportation has not come for their child and no communication has taken place, although school districts need more time to determine new routing schedules.

She said a delay in transportation could set students back, or for students who need consistency, anxiety can arise when asked to get back on the school bus. Even though there is a shortage of drivers, Helfrich noted that IEPs must be followed, in order to avoid liability. However, she encouraged to communicate with parents on a daily basis, explaining the situation, transportation issues and being honest.

She added that most of the time the transport decides a course of action, but parents are left in the dark. In these cases, prosecution may result. She added that the travel time for students with disabilities should also be taken into account and not be forgotten. There is no federal law on travel time, although states may have laws on how long a student can stay on board. She added that the teaching day cannot be shortened in response to longer bus trips.

Betsey Helfrich addressing participants at the TSD conference.

She said the transportation department could ask parents, but not force them, to transport their children instead of the bus. If the parents refuse, the transport teams must respect this decision and make other arrangements for the child. However, if the parents agree, Helfrich said an agreement should be drafted by the transportation department which the parent then signs.

The agreement must include information that the parent is volunteering to transport their child, that the parent’s vehicle is up to date with their inspections, that the parent is not an employee of the school district, and that the parent agrees to. be reimbursed for mileage on the days they drive their child. Helfrich noted that this option should not be offered to parents who, depending on the district, are not physically or mentally capable.

For students protected under the McKinney-Vento Homelessness Act, she recommends that an assessment be done annually to determine if services are still needed. However, if a child finds a permanent home in the middle of the year, continue to carry it until the end of the school year, she advised.

Helfrich added that it’s okay to ask for help. She encouraged participants to stand up for their bus drivers and ask for aids to be added to routes when additional pairs of hands are needed to manage students. She noted that under IDEA, it is never an excuse for the school administration or the school board to say that putting helpers on the bus is too expensive or under budget. For example, if a student needs immediate access to a school nurse in the classroom, they may also need access on the school bus. She said to ask the driving staff if they need assistance on the bus because it is too late once there is a dispute in place, or a child is injured.

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In conclusion, Helfrich said training goes a long way in protecting drivers. She advised transport managers to keep all records of the training that took place and who attended. If a safety training video is shown to the whole team, she advises having each team member sign a piece of paper indicating that they were present so that there is no confusion about who was there and who was not.

This includes training drivers on how to properly use child restraints. She noted that students with disabilities are restrained by other means at a higher rate, but these options should only be used as a last resort.

Always think about how a change will affect students with disabilities. Are we tracking their IEP? Don’t be afraid to get together again, she concluded.

Patricia Thomas, director of transportation for the Richland School District in Washington state, flipped through her pages of notes, talking about how informative the presentation was. Thomas attended the conference in 2019 and also saw Helfrich speak there. She explained that what really stood out to her is that there is federal funding available to hire and retain school bus drivers.

Thomas said the availability of this additional federal funding would help find other ways to transport students with disabilities.

Josy Campbell, operations manager for Harrison School District 2 in Colorado, has attended the TSD conference since 2013. She said Helfrich’s presentation focused on the responsibility for not meeting an IEP. She noted that hearing about other lawsuits in other states and school districts would help her prepare and report back to her district so her team escapes the ramifications. She said the Harrison School District takes pride in doing the right thing, so hearing this information about what not to do will only make their district a better place.

Campbell indicated that while continuing her 21-year career in transportation, she wishes to continue advocating for students with disabilities and has made special education transportation her specialty.

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