On November 27, a boy just shy of his fourth birthday was left on a District of Columbia school bus for more than six hours. According to a report (PDF) by the city's Office of the State Superintendent, the driver and bus attendant didn't check the bus for students at the end of their morning route and failed to notice that the boy, who was unharmed, was still in his booster seat until that afternoon.
A settlement agreement is pending that would end nearly two decades of litigation over the city's ability to provide transportation services for students with special needs. A final fairness hearing on that settlement is scheduled for December 19 – but the November incident "shook" the confidence of plaintiffs and their lawyers, lead class counsel Steven Ney said at a hearing this morning.
Federal court supervision of the city's transportation services for special needs students expired after 17 years on November 8, in light of the settlement reached by plaintiffs – families of students with special needs – and the District. The case is still open, though, and closing it hinges on final approval of the agreement.
This week, the District filed a report with the court on the November incident as well as answers (PDF) to additional questions (PDF) posed by the plaintiffs. U.S. District Senior Judge Paul Friedman said today that he hoped the incident wouldn't stand in the way of the settlement and was encouraged that the two sides had agreed to talk through any remaining concerns.
Ney told Friedman that the plaintiffs' goal was still to resolve the case and they still hoped to finalize the settlement soon. There was no discussion about pushing back the fairness hearing, but Ney said they wanted more information before they could feel confident again in the city's ability to keep children safe.
Deputy Attorney General Ellen Efros told Friedman that the November incident was an "isolated" one and that city officials took immediate action and launched an investigation. The bus driver and bus attendant involved were fired, according to the report filed with the court. She said that although the right protocols are in place, "there is always going to be human error."
Efros added that the U.S. attorney's office is looking into possible criminal action against the individuals involved in the November incident. A spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office, William Miller, confirmed in an email today that his office is investigating the matter with the Metropolitan Police Department.
Friedman, echoing Efros, said that in any bureaucracy "there are going to be mistakes, there are always going to be glitches." He said that the important thing was for the plaintiffs to have a high level of confidence in the District.
The case, Petties v. D.C., is one of six class actions pending against the District over the quality of services and care for some of its most vulnerable citizens. Exiting the costly and time-consuming federal court supervision in those cases has been a top priority for the city's Office of the Attorney General.