Adebajo Amusa is frustrated.
During the first three weeks of school, Amusa’s younger son, Horace, was either not picked up by the school bus or picked up late. On top of that, Horace, who has special needs, was not provided a bus aide, a requirement listed on his Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) — and Amusa wanted to know why.
“I’m trying to understand,” said Amusa, whose son attends Oak Park and River Forest High School. “I’ve been racking my brain. How can people let this happen?”
Amusa even lodged two complaints with the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) after he felt that the school’s responses left him with more questions than answers.
The trouble began when Horace, a sophomore at OPRF, was not picked up by the bus during the first week of school. Amusa explained that his ex-wife, who is the primary custodial parent of their two sons, contacted First Student Inc., the high school’s hired bus company, and was told Horace “hadn’t been routed” but would be by the following week.
Amusa, a special education teacher in Chicago Public Schools (CPS), said OPRF reopened a week earlier than CPS, so “I was still at home on summer break, and I was dropping [Horace] off and picking him up from school.
“The bottom line is we provided them with all the information they needed,” said Amusa, adding he did not understand why this was happening to Horace, who had ridden the bus for years without any issues. “They knew where to pick him up. They didn’t route him.”
By the second week, Amusa said he was met with another problem. On Aug 23 and 24, Horace was three hours late to school because of the school bus and missed out on nearly three hours of instructional learning through “no fault of his own, through no fault of our own, but through the district’s fault in their partnership with the First Student bus company.”
What’s more is that August, who also has special needs and participates in OPRF’s Community Integration Transition Education (CITE) program at the River Forest Community Center, has not encountered any busing issues at all since the start of the school year.
Amusa explained that his sons were being picked up at two different homes. August was picked up at his mother’s home on Humphrey Avenue while Horace should have been picked up at his grandmother’s home on Lenox Street.
Amusa said August is more independent and can be left alone for longer periods of time. On a typical morning, Amusa’s ex-wife would leave August at their home where he waits for the bus and then drops off Horace at her mother-in-law’s home where she watches him until the bus comes. It is a routine that has not been disrupted until now.
As his frustrations grew, he called the bus company, leaving voicemails and waiting for a response. He also reached out to school officials and department heads, including Shalema Francois-Blue, executive director of Special Education, and Leslie Roberts, assistant director of Special Education, and poured out his concerns one by one.
Amusa said he received some assurance from Francois-Blue and Roberts that the issues would be resolved, but one major problem remained: Horace still did not have a bus aide.
On Sept. 8, Francois-Blue and Roberts notified parents of students with special needs via email that the First Student bus company was understaffed and unable to offer the bus aides that certain students required.
“In usual circumstances, our transportation company would provide bus aides to support our students with identified needs,” the two wrote in the email. “Due to labor shortages, they are unable to do so.”
At this time, the school’s paraprofessionals are stepping in and doubling as bus aides, the pair noted. Representatives from First Student Inc. could not be immediately reached for comment.
Amusa said the timeliness of Francois-Blue and Roberts’ email was “far too coincidental,” as he filed the two complaints to ISBE just days before.
The state board has opened an investigation with the district, according to an emailed statement from Jackie Matthews, ISBE’s executive director of communications.
“If the district is found in violation of its obligation to provide a free and appropriate public education, ISBE will issue corrective action, which could include providing compensatory services to affected students,” she wrote.
Matthews mentioned that ISBE is offering resources for school districts experiencing a bus driver shortage. Districts can use federal pandemic relief funds to help recruit bus drivers, consider alternative transportation options or turn to local recreation departments for assistance.
Amusa said he wondered how long the district knew that the bus company was facing staffing issues.
“I think they should have known right from the very beginning [that] there was a staffing issue if they wanted to be compliant with IEPs, if they wanted to make sure each of these students — children who utilize wheelchairs, children who have seizure disorders, children who have all sorts of sensory processing issues, children who might be medically fragile, right?” he said, his voice trailing off.
Francois-Blue said she cannot comment on any individual cases such as the Amusas’.
“What we can share is that when any concerns with bus service are brought to our attention, we work with our families and the bus provider to address them as swiftly as possible,” she wrote in an email to the Journal. “Our top priority is always to ensure that our students are safe and that they receive the services they need.”
But Amusa is not buying that response.
He said Horace now has a bus aide, but he has lost trust in OPRF. Every day, he checks in with August, asking him if the bus aide was there and if the ride to school or back home went smoothly.
“I can hear it in his tone and his text: ‘Dad, we made it safely,’” said Amusa, recalling a recent conversation with August. ‘And, yes, there’s a bus aide.’”
“The anxiety is still there,” he said. “The worry is still there.”