Metro Nashville Public Schools have far fewer special education bus monitors than many counties in Tennessee, including the city’s surrounding “donut county” districts as well as the state’s other urban school districts.
MNPS has, in its budget, funds for a total of 35 bus monitors to be deployed on its 217 special education buses. Public school districts in all six counties contiguous to Davidson County, in contrast, have at least as many funded monitor positions in place as they have special education buses, according to recent figures released by the system.
Memphis city schools — the district most comparable to MNPS in terms of number of special education students transported — also has 200 monitor positions in place for its 200 special education buses. The urban district of Knox County has a ratio closer to — but still greater than — that of MNPS, with 49 funded monitor positions available for its 123 special education buses.
“It is pretty standard to have … monitors on special education buses,” said Martha Lafferty, managing attorney for the Disability Law and Advocacy Center of Tennessee.
In MNPS, according to district Transportation Director Keith Phillips, the Individualized Education Plans (IEP) have driven placement of monitors on buses. If a student’s plan specifies that a monitor should be in place on a school bus, then that student’s bus route would have priority in assignment of monitors, Phillips said.
“There is not a mandate to have monitors on buses. Some districts choose to do it; some districts choose not to do it,” Phillips said.
The data was compiled by MNPS at the request of Mayor Karl Dean, who asked that the information be included in a special education student safety plan for the district.
MNPS officials on Friday presented the plan to Dean. The plan includes positions for monitors on all district special education buses, at an estimated cost of almost $5 million. Funding for the plan is being considered as the budget season continues, though district officials and school board members have stated a commitment to implementing the plan as soon as it is responsibly possible.
The political attention to the situation follows MNPS being named the target of a class action lawsuit, after the alleged sexual assault of two special education students traveling on special education buses. The assaults are believed to have been committed by other students; special education students of various ages and conditions travel on buses together.
Lafferty said her organization advocates for one bus monitor to be placed on every special education bus. Though there is no legal mandate for this arrangement, Lafferty says it is consistent with the spirit of federal laws protecting children with disabilities.
“The only way to fill the obligations of the law is to have special education bus monitors,” Lafferty said. “It might not say, in black letters, that you have to have bus monitors for special ed buses, but I think that is a logical implication of the laws as they’re written.”
MNPS officials say that a number of factors have posed barriers, over the years, to hiring monitors for all special education buses. One of those barriers is funding — at an average cost of $24,000 each, monitors for all special education buses in the district would cost the district an estimated $4.85 million, according to the MNPS bus safety plan.
And even with that money in place, district officials say the positions are hard to fill. The jobs have odd hours, no benefits during summer months, and require working with a population of students that can pose special challenges.
For this reason, MNPS’s Phillips — who compiled the county comparison information cited in the bus safety report — said there is likely more to the information than meets the eye. The data includes funded positions, but does not account for whether those positions are actually staffed. In MNPS, there are a total of 35 monitor positions available, but only about 15 are actually staffed due to challenges finding the right people.
Lafferty said many of the state’s special education buses are monitored by educational assistants who work with special education students in the classroom. Many of these employees are part-time, Lafferty said, and are also familiar with most of the children on the buses — little training time is required, and relationships are in place.
Phillips said MNPS has considered, in the past, employment of educational assistants as bus monitors. The idea is currently being revisited, he said, as the district works to address its staffing needs. But many of MNPS’s educational assistants already work seven hours each day, and it may be a hard sell to convince them to add hours, according to Phillips.
District officials and school board members have expressed support for budgeting, as soon as possible, for enough monitor positions to staff all Metro special education buses. If this comes to be, Phillips said, his department will begin to recruit “aggressively” for monitors this summer.
“We would love to have an extra pair of eyes on our school buses, just as our principals would like to have an extra pair of eyes in our lunchrooms [and] out on the playground where children are playing,” Phillips said. “It’s not just limited to the school bus. We all would like to have extra eyes.”