On the Bus: Uncovering Complaints About Transportation for Special-Needs Students in D.C.

Asthma attacks, nosebleeds and conditions that could prompt a seizure in a child are among hundreds of D.C.’s list of school bus complaints, according to a News 4 I-Team investigation.

The I-Team obtained and dug through hundreds of these complaints from parents and community members sent to D.C.'s Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) in recent months. The agency is in charge of transporting more than 3,000 special-needs students in and out of D.C.

An OSSE bus operator contacted the I-Team to share problems he said he's seen with the bus fleet in the past few years, which range from cosmetic to mechanical. He asked that we not identify him, worried he might lose his job for coming forward.

"Buses were in bad condition," he said. "They're not being properly maintained. You're not seeing the bus being air conditioned."

Our investigation found trips where students didn’t have air conditioning or heat were among the most frequently recorded complaints. Some parents linked these problems with reported asthma attacks and other adverse health effects. By OSSE's own count, reports of problems with the bus fleet have grown this year -- from 65 in 2014 to 79 in 2015 as of Sept. 30.

One mother who lodged complaints of her own also contacted the I-Team to talk about the difficulty she said she's had getting her problems addressed.

"A lot of times, things weren't going right with the school bus," said Tracy Graham, whose daughter has autism. "I'm quite sure I'm not the only one that feels that way, but I'm speaking up on it."

Graham said she had to speak up more than a dozen times by calling OSSE, as well as visit their office in person before she felt like her repeated issues with bus pickups and drop-offs started to improve.

"I went there personally to talk to them," Graham said, "because I felt that nothing was getting done."

The I-Team went to OSSE for answers about how it handles complaints. In an email, the agency admitted that prior to 2014, its older system for handling reported problems did not "accurately and efficiently [track] a complaint from report to resolution."

Gretchen Brumley, who took over as OSSE's Director of Student Transportation less than a year ago, later told the I-Team they've changed how they respond to those reported concerns.

"Since [instituting] our new system, where we track and log and follow up on our complaints in 2014, we received approximately 989 complaints, of which only 7.5 percent were substantiated," Brumley told the I-Team.

In a separate email, OSSE said those 989 complaints account for problems reported about the bus fleet, drivers and unprofessional conduct.

Brumley said the agency has streamlined the process for parents and others to report school bus problems. "My utopia is no complaints," she said. "But again, because of the size [of our operation], we know that there will be complaints. We're very sensitive to our parents."

Brumley also told the I-Team she wants every bus to be less than five years old by 2017.

Our driver told us he's also lodged complaints with OSSE and worried solutions haven't come fast enough.

"We transport the most precious cargo in the United States of America," he said. "That's why it's so important to me to have these vehicles up and running straight."

To file a complaint with OSSE, go here.

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