When Sheila Russell sends her son, Jeren, on the bus, it can take him up to 10 minutes to get from the ground, into the vehicle.

This is because Jaren has muscular dystrophy, and at the age of 18 he is severely physically disabled, without movement in his arms or legs. To get him on the bus, Russell said the bus driver had to exit the bus and operate the ramp, which requires keys to be in the ignition.

Teri Pablo, communications director for Yelm Community Schools said that the bus drivers in these situations still stay with the bus. Russell agreed, saying that bus drivers that operate the wheelchair lifts are always in earshot of the other students. However, Russell pointed out that while the drivers can hear the children, it would be hard to catch them in time if they wanted to mess with the ignition or run off the bus.

“These are dangerous conditions that are occurring while my son is hanging off the side of the bus,” Russell said in a letter to the school district… “Once the lift is up, Jeren then backs onto the bus unsupervised and unable to see what is behind him, hopefully never another child.”

These concerns were realized when Russell noticed that there was no bus attendant assigned to the bus. Sure, Jeren has a one-on-one LPN that rides the bus with him, but she cannot be used as a bus attendant because that would be a violation of his Individual Educational Plan — IEP.

In fact, Russell perceived that bus attendants were wiped from the busses last spring after speaking with district personnel, but Shannon Powell, director of student support for Yelm Community Schools, said the attendants were actually left on busses after the students that needed them transitioned off. They left these attendants on the busses for years, until last spring.

“Assistants on special needs busses are not being taken off,” Powell said. “Last year we had an abundance of paras on the buses. We addressed that issue in the spring — we had a new crop of kids that came into our district and some of those aids were re-added to our district bus lot, pending students’ IEP outcome.”

Pablo agreed with Powell, saying that the bus attendants were not laid off, but instead assigned to children that needed them most. 

“Really it’s a process and a system that we have in making sure that the students that need the services receive the services — not leaving an assistant on the bus when that student’s service is no long needed,” Pablo said. “That role really transitions with the student, and the goal is not for that student to have an assistant the entire time. This student is to build and grow as an individual so they do not need that aid. We want them to be self-sufficient and independent.”

Powell also said that for the wheelchair-accessible buses, the number of students riding the bus is often low and can even be as little as one to three students. Russell said that while she cannot pinpoint exactly how many students ride Jaren’s bus, it “had to be higher that five and lower than 20.” Last year, the bus contained at least eight students, she said.

Each aid on each bus is usually a one-on-one aid to one student’s IEP.

“There is a difference between a bus attendant and a one-on-one aid,” Russell said. “Bus attendants are there for all the children on the bus, while one-on-one aids are only supposed to deal with only the child they are assigned.”

A couple times, when there was no other aid available, Jeren’s nurse had to step up. One time a child was having a seizure, while the other event was a time when a child was simply unruly, Russell said.

She said that her hope is for students to not be put in the situation where an aid has to choose between children. It is also her hope for aids to be attached to at least wheelchair busses, if not all of them. If the current model is to have one-on-ones be the only aids on the busses, she said that puts the children and the aids in a bad situation, and parents should have been informed of the bus attendants’ reassignment.

So Russel did something about it. She made an appointment with student support at the school district and told them Jaren’s story. At the meeting, she said that there was an underlying current that said that student support already knew what to do.

“Last week, it was like they had already decided to add a bus attendant to my son’s IEP,” Russell said.

The district responded to Russell’s request by putting an attendant on Jaren’s bus in addition to his personal nurse.

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