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

August 11, 1996|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

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.

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