DESTIN — Ron Smithey wakes up his 10-year-old son before daylight on school days to prepare him for a nearly 1½ hour trek to school. That’s because his son, who is autistic, cannot attend school in their hometown of Destin and therefore is bused to the neighboring city of Fort Walton Beach each day.
What would normally be a 30-minute drive actually averages 73 minutes for Smithey's son and the other 12 special needs children who ride the Destin-to-Fort Walton Beach bus, according to information provided by the Okaloosa County School District.
“He has to be on the bus at 6:30 in the morning and school doesn’t even start until 8:15,” Smithey said. “The kids right across the street don’t even get on the bus until 8, so I think it’s discrimination. He is losing several hours a day while he is locked on a bus. We just can’t seem to get a break.”
Assistant Superintendent for the Okaloosa County School District, Steve Horton said the door-to-door student pick-up procedure is the main factor in elongated travel time. Besides the bus driver, a trained aid also rides the bus with the children in order to help address and de-escalate issues, should they arise during the bus route.
"That drive time is a byproduct of picking up each student at their door," Horton said. "We work with our transportation department to do the best we can to minimize those drive times. It’s always a concern to us. It’s just a matter of trying to find the best way to keep those drive times minimized."
Smithey said that his now fifth-grade son attended a special needs prekindergarten (Pre-KD) at Destin Elementary School when he was 3 years old. When he aged out, his parents were told there was no accommodating class for their son in Destin. The option the School District gave the family was to enroll their son in Edwin’s Elementary School in Fort Walton Beach, Smithey said.
Just down the street from Smithey lives another autistic boy, 10-year-old Landon Blasbichler. He too rides the bus, and is the last stop on the route which means he rides the bus the longest. Landon's father, Jeff, said he and Smithey have known each other since their sons were in prekindergarten together, and he is also an advocate for shorter bus times for their kids.
Blasbichler said that to try to cut down on Landon's daily travel time, he takes his fourth-grader to school every morning, but since he cannot make it to Fort Walton Beach early enough for pick-up, his son returns home to Destin on the bus.
“He sleeps on the ride home, which makes it hard for him to go to bed at night and that just (creates) problems the next day because he might be groggy or sleepy,” Blasbichler said. “I actually take him in the morning, because the bus ride would be two hours and it’s too much for a special needs kid to be on the bus that long.”
Horton said that the ESE department reviews enrollment numbers each year in order to determine the need for new self-contained classrooms, but as it stands in Destin, there are not enough special needs students to garner a new classroom.
“Including students who are driven to school by their parents, we typically have had only three students in any one grade band (K-2, 3-5 and 6-8) with the same special needs that would be in a class together,” Horton said. “Generally 10 students is what we look at as a guideline when opening a new class.”
Horton added that 10 years ago, the need for a pre-KD class in Destin was great enough to create one classroom and a few years ago that grew to two. Midway through this school year (2018-2019), that need grew again, so today, Destin Elementary School has three pre-KD classrooms.
"There are three pre-KD classes at the elementary school in Destin currently, but not all of the students in a given pre-KD class will need to be transported into a self-contained classroom somewhere else," Horton said. "We are always monitoring that as well."
As for the bus times, Horton said that there is no maximum time set by the School District that limits a student’s bus travel time. Concerns for children needing to use the bathroom during the ride have arisen due to the long bus route. However, Horton stated that for the safety of the students, buses are not permitted to make an unapproved stop.
Horton did say the School District is willing to work on solutions on the travel-time issue going forward. One suggestion would be to hire a second driver and have two buses routed from Destin to Fort Walton Beach, but Horton said the necessary staff may not be available.
"That is something we always look to consider," Horton said. "I think we will be able to look at the transportation department to see if it is feasible with the budgetary restrictions we have. I am never opposed to looking at options that can improve the educational experience for our students."
Today, Smithey said that although he had almost given up the fight for a special needs class in Destin, with the new spotlight on Exceptional Student Education (ESE) students in Okaloosa County, he just wants to have his voice heard. He added that he fears the bus ride situation will relive itself in his life, as his second son, who is 3 years old, may also be diagnosed with autism.
“It’s about to happen again," he said. "With all of the attention on the School District and special needs students right now, we were hoping that it would gain some attention that these kids are being discriminated against by our School District and we are powerless to stop it.”
But for their part, Horton said the School District is committed to working with ESE parents to address possible solutions.
"This spring we will look at those pre-KD classes and determine the need for a class," Horton said. "That is what I am committed to doing, and it is something we will be doing moving forward."