Pennsylvania Case Reminds Pupil Transporters About Importance of Communication

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An on-going legal case in Pennsylvania has a direct impact on how school transportation departments involve special education departments and private bus contractors in planning all aspects of the related school service.

Parents of a then 12-year-old seventh grader claim that the local school district, the bus company and the driver violated state negligence laws and their child’s federal civil rights by failing to address the boy’s severe medical condition when planning and performing a bus evacuation exercise.

The student suffers from osteopetrosis — literally meaning “stone bone” — also known as marble bone disease or Albers-Schonberg disease, a rare and inherited medical condition that results in abnormal bone development, stunted growth, fragile bones and blindness. Peggy A. Burns, Esq., owner of Education Compliance Group, called added attention to the case during a general session at the Transporting Students with Disabilities and Preschoolers National Conference in Kansas City on March 14.

The school district had arranged for an emergency bus evacuation drill to be held. But, despite knowing about the boy’s disease, neither the district nor the parents informed the school bus company and the bus driver of the student’s medical condition. The drill was subsequently planned and held, and the students were instructed to exit the bus through the rear emergency door and jump down to the pavement below. When “IR” did so, he suffered multiple leg fractures that required surgery.

The parents sued the district, the bus driver and the bus company for negligence and civil rights violations. Burns said an initial recommendation by a magistrate last November to dismiss the state claim on grounds of government immunity held up in court. But, in January, a judge found that the complete absence of communication and the failure to make special provisions for the boy was “conscious shocking,” a legal term that supports the civil rights claim.

If proven, Burns said these acts would be demonstrated as an “egregious administrative oversight by the district in utter disregard of the boy’s perilous condition.” The case was remanded for further proceedings to determine if the injuries were foreseeable. But Burns added that there is already a clear lesson learned for school transporters nationwide.

“We don’t need to wait to see what happens,” she said. “This is added ammunition to deliver the message to special education departments and bus contractors that it is essential and legal to provide information about the disabilities of students, which impacts not only the ride but all aspects of the transportation process, whether or not the case results in liability.”

The Pennsylvania School Bus Association also briefed members on the case in its March newsletter. Per U.S. law, contractors alone are likely to bear the responsibility of a child being injured during a drill if a civil rights claim is absent. PSBA added that state law does not specify that children must jump out the back exit of the school bus while performing evacuation drills.