Maria Alvarez Garcia expects her 14-year-old grandson with special needs, Adam, to be home shortly after class is out at 3:10 p.m. But on Sept. 20, she says she didn’t know where the boy was for over an hour.
When she finally got a call from his school, she was told that Adam had been pulled off the bus for bad behavior, and that she would need to come pick him up.
She says it was the worst issue she’s had so far with First Student, the transportation company that contracts with the Fresno County Office of Education and Fresno Unified to transport students with special needs. Garcia said First Student also routinely picks up or drops off Adam late due to a shortage of bus drivers, echoing concerns about driver shortages nationwide.
Garcia said that getting left behind is particularly traumatizing for students with moderate or severe special needs like Adam, who can’t walk, speak or comprehend a disruption to his daily routine. But it’s also worrisome for Garcia and her family to not know where Adam is for 30-45 minutes every day.
“We call [First Student] and the lines are busy. We ask them, ‘Where’s Adam?’ and they don’t know,” Garcia said. “So then we call his teacher, we call the principal, and they can’t tell us, either.”
First Student did not respond to a request for comment on Alvarez’s specific claims. But the company had previously told The Bee that delays are common in the first few days of school as drivers adjust to their routes.
The company has an ongoing hiring call on its website, but spokesman Chris Kemper said all routes in the Fresno area are fully staffed, and he has not heard of any complaints in the area.
“There’s a driver shortage nationwide,” Kemper said.
Get to know the kids
Since the start of the school year, Garcia estimates that Adam has been late at least three times, and she typically does not receive a phone call from the company to let her know. Once, Garcia said, the bus forgot to pick him up from home at all.
Garcia said she doesn’t blame the bus drivers, who may have to complete one route and then go back to the school to cover a second route if another driver is out sick. They also may not know how to handle Adam, Garcia said, who has been known to pull hair and grab at glasses when he’s upset or excited.
“If you knew him, you would know he likes to play rough like any little boy,” Garcia said.
Garcia said one solution would be to mandate that bus drivers attend the Individualized Education Plan meetings where parents of special needs students meet with educators to discuss their needs.
“They need to get to know the kids they are transporting, so they don’t freak out when he has a seizure, and they know how to help him,” she said.
Adam’s school, the Beth Ramacher Development Center, is a special education school operated by the Fresno County Office of Education.
Lisa Birrell, communications and public relations officer at the Office of the Fresno County Superintendent of Schools, said she could not comment on individual students’ situations.
“The needs of our students are always considered in their Individualized Education Programs, which includes transportation based upon each student’s circumstances,” Birrell said. “Any concerns regarding transportation are promptly addressed in coordination with First Student.”
Fresno Unified spokesman Miguel Arias said that students district-wide have had issues getting to school on time if they ride First Student buses. Arias said that district buses are not experiencing delays.
“Some of our special education students that rely on First Student for bus transportation from home to school and back have experienced delays. The cause of the delay is a national shortage of bus drivers,” Arias said. “We are working very closely with First Student to remedy this situation as quickly as possible. We will devote as much time as possible to ensure that each and every one of our students is transported safely and on time every day.”