In Jackie McBride’s view, allowing her disabled daughter to attend an after-school program in Lockport should have been as simple as opening the doors of her bus and letting her off.
The bus, after all, stopped outside the school every day for months to drop off another student.
Instead, McBride has spent two years and has had to enlist the help of an attorney in the hopes of getting the Wilson Central School District to let her daughter, Sydney Leszczak, get off the bus when it stops in Lockport on its drive home from Sydney’s day program.
The district has argued that state law prohibits it from dropping a student off at a private program outside of the district, but a state review officer ruled that the district denied Sydney an “equal opportunity” to participate in after-school activities and ordered it to allow Sydney to exit the bus at the Lockport site.
Despite the ruling, Sydney still has not been able to attend the after-school program. McBride has been told that her daughter’s bus route has changed and no longer stops at the Lockport school where the program is offered.
“It’s incredible that this case has gone through this process,” said Ron Hager, a senior staff attorney for the National Disability Rights Network. “The school bus literally stops at their building, and they refuse to let her off the bus. They’ve gone through two due-process hearings, an appeal to the state and maybe even potentially to court.”
A school district attorney, citing federal student privacy laws and the potential for a pending appeal, won’t discuss details of the case involving McBride’s daughter. But the district has argued in two administrative hearings that state education law and its own district transportation policies prevent it from allowing Sydney off the bus – an argument Sydney’s attorney and an impartial state hearing officer rejected.
“From our perspective, we didn’t do anything wrong,” said the district’s attorney, Ryan L. Everhart, a partner with Hodgson Russ who specializes in education law. “We intend to present our case to the federal court, and we think that a fair review will show that what we did was appropriate.”
Sydney’s family moved into the Wilson district in 2010, the same year she began attending an after-school program run by People Inc. at Lockport High School.
Because Sydney, 19, is intellectually disabled, she attends special-education classes at Orleans-Niagara Board of Cooperative Educational Services in Medina.
For a few months, the district continued to transport her to the People Inc. after-school program in Lockport on her daily trip from Medina to Wilson.
Then, in August 2011, the district told McBride it would no longer drop her daughter off at the after-school program. The district told McBride in a letter in 2011 that it was prohibited from transporting a student to or from a site other than a student’s home or school, according to an appeal decision.
The after-school program, operated by People Inc., is paid for through Medicaid, but the cost of transportation is not covered.
Because Sydney’s bus had already been stopping at Lockport High School, where the after-school program is held, McBride and an attorney from Neighborhood Legal Services contend there would have been minimal or no cost to allow her to simply get off the bus at the site.
Sydney’s bus does not return to Wilson in time for her to participate in Wilson’s after-school programs, her mother said.
“It’s a program that meets her needs. She loves it. She does so well there, and it’s appropriate for her,” said attorney Linda J. DeTine, of Neighborhood Legal Services, a nonprofit agency that helps advocate for disability rights. “We have appropriate programs for children that don’t have disabilities, and this one is appropriate for her and there’s not a real practical reason why they’re not letting her go.”
A state review officer with the Department of Education ruled in September that the district “has not identified any legitimate reason” why Sydney should be treated differently from the student who, at the time of the appeal, was already being dropped off in Lockport.
“The district’s steadfast refusal to allow the student to access this program that is already available has, under these facts, denied the student an equal opportunity to participate in extracurricular activities,” the state review officer, Justyn P. Bates, ruled in September.
The state decision came after the district appealed an earlier impartial hearing officer’s ruling that ordered the district to allow Sydney off the bus but found that the district had “met its obligation” to provide her the chance to participate in extracurricular activities. The district argued that the hearing officer erred in ordering Wilson to drop the student off at the site.
Months in appeal
The dispute was aired at two administrative hearings. One hearing officer ruled that the district had met its obligations under federal special-education law. But it must allow Sydney to get off the bus if it stops at Lockport High School, where the after-school program is held. A second hearing officer, who heard the case under a separate section of the law, sided with the district.
The district appealed the hearing officer’s order to drop Sydney off at the Lockport site. The administrative review officer who heard the appeal found that the district had not offered Sydney equal access to extracurricular activities. That review officer also ruled that the school district should allow Sydney to get off the bus in Lockport.
“On the face of it, it can be confusing why the district has taken the position it has,” Everhart said. “But I can assure you that there are very strong reasons why the school took the position it has, and it really does feel that its position is in accord with what the legal requirements are.”
The decision by the other hearing officer, in favor of the school district, could not be appealed until the appeal of the first decision was heard, DeTine said.
McBride and her attorney question the length of time it has taken to resolve an issue they believe could have been addressed by simply allowing Sydney off the bus at the Lockport site.
“This is a lot of hours for the minuscule amount of effort on their part,” DeTine said.
While the bus no longer stops at Lockport High School, McBride said it now stops at another nearby school in Lockport a few miles away from the after-school program.
The district sent a letter to McBride in December 2011, claiming that it was prohibited from transporting the student to or from a point other than the student’s home and school.
Sasha Pudelski, an assistant director of policy and advocacy for the American Association of School Administrators, has studied how school districts resolve these types of disputes and said most are addressed before they reach the point of administrative appeals and lawsuits.
So far this year, according to the Department of Education, state review officers have issued 31 decisions regarding disputes over services provided under federal special education law.
“The decision to move forward with a due-process complaint or hearing is really not taken lightly by districts,” Pudelski said. “There are a lot of factors that are considered before a district decides to settle with a parent or engage in a due-process hearing or further litigation beyond that.”
Among those factors, she said, could be whether a settlement with one parent could lead to additional requests from other parents or whether a settlement would be fair to other students. The cost of a settlement and attorneys fees can also play a role. District records regarding Wilson’s legal costs in the case were not immediately available.
But Hager, an attorney with the National Disabilities Rights Network, said the length of time this dispute has lingered is unusual.
“I’ve never seen a case like that,” Hager said, “where it’s that little of an issue that’s being fought over that hard.”