By Paula Katinas
Parents of special education students were paying close attention when the City Council passed a bill on Wednesday mandating that all school buses come equipped with GPS tracking devices.
The GPS devices will enable parents to access up-to-the-minute information about where their kids are at any given moment during the trip to and from school, according to advocates who watched the vote closely.
The issue is particularly acute to parents of special education students, who comprise a large share of the passengers riding city school buses.
Two-thirds of the children who ride city-contracted school buses have identified disabilities, according to information provided by the City Council. And those students usually have to travel longer distances to get to school.
On Wednesday, the council approved legislation sponsored by Chaim Deutsch (D-Brighton Beach-Sheepshead Bay) and Ben Kallos (D-Upper East Side) to install GPS devices on school buses and to give parents the option of using the tracking devices via an app. Another bill would give parents the opportunity before the start of the school year to review and bus routes and request changes to those routes.
The bills have been sent to Mayor Bill de Blasio for his signature.
“In the hands of parents, a bus tracker app provides critical information to manage a busy day. But the intangible benefits are even greater, some peace of mind that a mother or father knows where their disabled child is,” said attorney Regina Skyer, whose law firm has represented thousands of families of special education students.
The bills are important for another reason, according to Skyer. “Giving our most vulnerable families basic, helpful information is a measure of respect,” she said.
The bills were drafted after years of complaints about the Office of Pupil Transportation from schools, parents, and advocates about missing buses, chronic delays, poor routing, failure to abide by medical codes for disabled students and the lack of training for drivers and escorts working with disabled children.
The controversy reached its zenith in November, when Winter Storm Avery hit New York City and a group of special children were stuck on a school bus in the snow for more than 10 hours.
“As a father of five, I’ve experienced that terrifying feeling of losing sight of my child for a few seconds in a public place. Parents who put their kids on a school bus go through that same feeling every day, but we can do better,” Deutsch said.
"No parent should wonder where their child is or when their child is finally getting home from a school bus ride gone off track. Parents would rest assured knowing when and where their child’s school bus is using an app on their phone," Kallos said.
Councilmember Mark Treyger (D-Coney Island-Gravesend-parts of Bensonhurst), who serves as chairman of the Education Committee, helped shepherd the legislation through the council.
"Parents have enough to worry about. School bus rides to and from school should not be another cause for concern,” Treyger said.
Several council members from Queens, including Daniel Dromm, Costa Constantinides, Karen Koslowitz, Robert Holden, Peter Koo, Jimmy Van Bramer, Daneek Miller and Eric Ulrich, are listed as sponsors.
The bills are a necessity, according to Kim Sweet, executive director of Advocates for Children of New York, a non-profit organization advocating for students from low-income families.
“Students with disabilities should not have their education shortchanged by problems with transportation, and this common-sense measure is an important step toward ensuring they are in the classroom where they belong,” Sweet said.