Justice was served for two autistic children who endured sweltering conditions on their school buses, after a lawsuit against the New York City Department of Education (DOE) concluded on Monday.
The lawsuit was originally filed by Public Advocate Letitia James in August 2015, due to the DOE’s failure to provide sufficient air conditioning on school buses transporting Queens’ District 75 students with disabilities. The complaint was filed alongside two autistic co-plaintiffs who were represented by civil rights attorney David Rankin of Rankin & Taylor, PLLC. The evidence contained recordings of hazardous temperatures that reached 91 degrees on the city buses.
“Today we achieved justice for some of our most vulnerable children, but our work is not complete,” James said on July 20, after she gained immediate access to air-conditioned buses for the two District 75 students. “For years, DOE has violated the law, failing to provide this simple, vital accommodation and putting our children in danger. We will not stop fighting until every one of our children with disabilities is safe.”
The two students can comfortably ride the new buses now, equipped with front and back air-conditioning for the summer’s heatwaves. Nonetheless, James is tenaciously pursuing her lawsuit to obtain relief for all children with disabilities who are illegally sitting on stifling school buses.
“I am so grateful that the Public Advocate Tish James took on this long fight,” said Catherine Simone, a mother of one of the autistic children who rides a District 75 school bus. “I am ecstatic that finally, my child will have relief from the dangerous heat on his bus. It is horrible that so many other children with disabilities who really need the air-conditioning — and can’t even communicate their pain — are still not getting it. With the public advocate, we will keep fighting, we won’t give up, and we are not going away.”
James, who has battled the wrongful school bus conditions for years, sent a letter to the DOE in September 2014 after a District 75 autistic child was stuck on a school bus in the sweltering heat. The absence of air conditioning resulted in the victim being rushed to the emergency room.
The public advocate cited a city code in her Aug. 15, 2015, press release, which states that any bus carrying a child with a disability to and from a school must be air-conditioned when the outside temperature exceeds 70 degrees. The DOE has contracts with private bus companies to transport nearly 27,000 students with disabilities during the regular school season and summer months. When James requested documentation from the DOE in reference to the dangerous temperatures on District 75 buses, the city did not take action until the lawsuit was presented.
District 75 is a citywide school district that serves the Queens neighborhoods of South Richmond Hill, Jamaica, Maspeth, Elmhurst, Fresh Meadows and more. The district is comprised of special education schools, providing educational, vocational and behavioral support programs for students who are on the autism spectrum. It accommodates students who have major cognitive delays, severe emotional challenges, sensory impairments and other disabilities.