TAMPA — Quietly lost during this year's furor over having children walk farther to bus stops is a major change in how Hillsborough transports students with disabilities.
Thousands of students with special needs are now riding the bus with everyone else.
Even parents who support greater mainstreaming are upset that school officials failed to notify them in advance. Hillsborough school officials say they are providing accommodations and meeting their obligations.
The change for these vulnerable students has been overshadowed by the many parents unhappy about longer walks and the loss of after-school busing. But concerns for special-needs children go beyond speeding cars and sexual predators. Parents worry about their difficulty with communicating discomfort or self-destructive behavior if routines are thrown off.
"We have enough surprises in our lives with our special-needs children," said Gina Hammons, a parent and advocate for disabled students. "So we don't need any additional surprises — like when is the bus coming, where is it going and who is on the bus?"
Hammons is executive director of Informed Parents Uniting Together, a Tampa Bay group of more than 350 parents that advocates for greater inclusion. She supports mainstreaming on buses, but questions the district's motives. The lack of outreach to parents, she says, smacks of cost-savings.
Hammons says parents are concerned about the lack of training for bus drivers now transporting children with disabilities. They also worry about teasing by other students.
School officials say less has changed than parents may realize.
Hillsborough continues to provide specialized transportation services, even when students are in mainstream settings. For example, an aide may ride the bus to help a student with a disability. And many students with physical disabilities still ride buses exclusively for special-needs children.
The change mostly has affected students mixed into regular classrooms during the school day, district officials say. About 3,500 to 4,000 special education students are now riding on what the district is calling universal buses.
"This is where we should have been, quite frankly, several years ago," said Wynne Tye, assistant superintendent for curriculum. "We're already doing this in our classrooms … so why would the bus be different."
Some parents report less than ideal experiences.
Sharon Baron drove her 11-year-old autistic son, Jesse, to school the first week of classes while she was trying to figure out his bus schedule. Like parents across the county, she struggled to get through on jammed phone lines at the transportation center.
When she finally learned the basic stop information, the experience did not go well. She said Jesse put his hand out to greet the driver, but she did not return the greeting.
He grabbed an aide just above the elbow, another form of greeting, but the aide brushed him away.
With another child, it might not be a problem. But greetings and social interaction are central to Jesse's education. Baron said the driver was not interested in taking time to discuss his special needs.
"He's got two people now that are not approachable. He cannot approach them to even try to express his needs," she said. "And what he'll do in that situation is start banging his head on the window."
She spent the first month of school trying to resolve the situation. Finally, Jesse's principal at Ballast Point Elementary called this week and informed her that another driver was assigned to his route. Baron is hopeful the problems will end.
Advocates for students with disabilities agree that inclusion on buses can be a good thing, but say it must be carefully monitored. A child has already been kicked off the school bus from the Children's Home, a residential treatment program for abused and neglected children in the foster care system, said Marlene Bloom, the program's school liaison.
"For our emotionally disturbed kids, the more mainstreaming the better — so long as it's safe," she said, recalling a child who was beaten up on a regular bus last year. "The bus is always a challenge, but if you're going to mix (students with disabilities) with regular education kids you have to provide more supervision."
The Children's Home now is considering driving students to school.
School officials say drivers have been trained to handle a variety of student situations. They acknowledge there was no special training for the move to greater inclusion of students with disabilities.
The district says parents may be confused about the kind of busing services they can expect to receive. For instance, so long as the district is meeting children's needs, officials say the district was not required to send notification about this year's changes.
But outreach may be a topic for future conversation. Hammons, the parent and inclusion advocate, suggested school officials schedule a town hall meeting just for parents of special-needs students.
"A little communication goes a long way," Hammons said, calling this "the biggest crisis" in the community in a long time. "If this was a true inclusion effort, there are so many channels the district could go through."
Letitia Stein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3400. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.