AMSTERDAM, N.Y. (NEWS10) — Greater Amsterdam School District parents say their semester is already off to a terrible start. Two local moms say their sons with autism went missing on the very first day.
“The bus pulls up and he goes, your son took an Uber. I started laughing, I thought he was joking, and he goes, oh no really he’s not on my bus. They did not know where my son was,” says Destinee Robinson, mother to 12-year-old Stephen.
“No one contacted us. Now it’s 3:10 [p.m.] and his best friend’s mom texted me to let me know that neither one of them were on the bus,” says Melinda Gerard, who’s 12-year-old Zachary was also left behind.
Both Robinson and Gerard say they went to Lynch Literacy Academy to find their children Wednesday afternoon, but say Principal Matthew Lewis told them their sons had left on the buses. They say another 30 minutes later, their children were found crying in the cafeteria. Gerard says the lack of communication to parents frustrates her, but also the fact that around a dozen students total had been left behind by the buses unsupervised, including one other boy with autism.
“Zachary is selective-mute. So he needs that structure of what he can know is going to happen and where he’s going to go, and he can’t ask questions or communicate with someone he’s not comfortable with. His IEP includes a one-on-one aid to be watching him, so I asked him if he had been wandering the halls by himself and he said yes. The principal called him a liar to his face,” Gerard says.
From the time of dismissal until they picked up their sons, Robinson and Gerard estimate their boys had been alone for approximately an hour. They say they’re further disappointed the school did not take the characteristics of autistic behavior into account when assigning monitors to their children.
“They could have wandered off, Zachary could have hurt himself, hurt other people, it happens. I’m not saying just in the school district, but there are documented cases where people with autism have been in danger being alone,” says Gerard.
“It’s obviously unacceptable to have a student alone that long. I can’t verify how long it was, but if it’s more than a few minutes it’s a long time,” Superintendent Rich Ruberti responds during an interview with NEWS10’s Mikhaela Singleton.
Ruberti says the district had a last minute complication with the contractor that provides their bus drivers.
“We were informed last- this week that seven drivers were no longer with them so we cut that driver pool in about, almost half,” he explains.
He says he has a planned meeting to discuss alternatives with the contracting company Friday afternoon, which may include drivers picking up additional routes where they might previously only have had one. He also says the district is working on technology for students and parents to use to stay in touch.
“We have a project called ‘Zonar’ that is being installed in the buses. It’s a tracking system for parents that they can have their kids install the app and they can track where they are on the bus. That should be installed by the end of the month,” Ruberti says.
“I’ve been assured those interactions [by principal] were handled with the utmost professionalism, and if it is to be discovered that was not the case, then we will appropriately address that,” he further adds.
However even during class time, Robinson and Gerard say their sons aren’t getting their full education. They say there are no special education teachers or qualified substitutes and no one-on-one aids to fulfill the students’ Individualized Education Plans.
“They informed me that the substitute teacher is different every day and they have no experience with special ed. So I asked them, what happens if my son was to have a meltdown? Are they going to know what to do? She told me that she didn’t have those answers for me,” says Robinson.
“As a matter of fact, today I was told the person in the classroom is a bus monitor. That person is not qualified to teach our kids,” she goes on to say.
Ruberti admits the district is severely understaffed, and the special education teacher in charge of Stephen and Zachary’s classes had quit just the previous week.
“Not enough people are working as teachers, particularly in math, science, and special education, it’s very difficult to find staff,” he explains. “We’ve been trying to fill the space by calling retirees, also calling colleges as well. We are shifting staff from other buildings to cover classes so we will have a certified teacher there, hopefully by Monday, but that’s of course been hard too since we have so many positions to fill.”
He estimates the district had about 40 positions to fill before the beginning of the school year. Ruberti also confirms there is no virtual option for Greater Amsterdam School District students this year.
“There are very, very few schools providing [a virtual] option, and we do have tutoring available through a third-party we contract for after school, but we felt we were prepared for in-person with our COVID protocols and sanitizing procedures,” he says.
“As an overall district, we felt it was in the best interest of our students and our parents to have in-person only,” Ruberti continues.
“To me that’s unacceptable. They are special needs, they have IEP‘s for a reason and need the one-on-one help. They should go by it or send them home until they’re ready,” says Robinson.
“I understand we’re in a pandemic, completely understand, but if you guys are not equipped enough to teach these children or put them on the bus safely, then our school should not be opened,” adds Gerard.
Friday afternoon, NEWS10 waited with Robinson to see Stephen off the bus safely. He made it home several minutes early, leading Robinson to breathe a much needed sigh of relief.
“I don’t have to go yell at the school today,” she laughs. “This is what they need to do. If they just do this, then I wouldn’t have the problems I had.”
However, Gerard says she’s leaving nothing to chance. Zachary has been home since Thursday afternoon, because she says neither of them feel he’s safe in school.
“Now I have a child who has such high anxiety that he’s having panic attacks in school and not one adult around him is there to comfort him,” Gerard says. “He will not be returning until they can say that he will be okay.”