Mom angry that boy with special needs rode bus without air conditioning

A Parker County mother is hot under the collar after discovering that her 5-year-old special-needs child rode for almost two hours on a school bus without air conditioning on Monday as temperatures hit a record-tying 107 degrees.

Melanie LaBrake, who lives with her family near the Hood-Parker county line, said her son Hunter arrived home bathed in sweat even after she said an aide who rode with him on the bus doused him and other students with water in an effort to keep them cool.

"When Hunter arrived home, he was lethargic and soaked in sweat. I take the heat seriously," said LaBrake, whose son attends Stephen F. Austin Elementary School in Weatherford. "It's the same thing as leaving a child in a hot vehicle."

The Weatherford Police Department and the Weatherford school district are investigating the incident.

Bus transfer system

Derik Moore, the district's communications director, said that the bus used by the special education students is equipped with air conditioning but that it was not working Monday. "On Monday, students who rode the bus for more than an hour were given bottled water," he said.

Typically, special education students who ride buses are taken to the ninth grade center in Weatherford where they wait on air-conditioned buses until another bus arrives to take them home, Moore said. The drivers and aides help the students transfer to the right buses.

On Monday, when the air conditioning on the bus carrying LaBrake's son malfunctioned, the district was sending another bus to pick the students up, but it was delayed because of heavy first-day-of-school traffic. As a result, the bus with the nonworking air conditioning took the students home.

"We learned from this experience. If we can't get a bus there with air conditioning, we will notify the parents," Moore said.

Moore said the Weatherford school district is unusual in that its north-south bus routes are long and that students often ride for over an hour.

No special rules

There are no state or federal guidelines requiring that special education students ride air-conditioned buses, said DeEtta Culbertson, a spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency.

"There is nothing in the law which says a student with a disability or any other child is required to be on an air-conditioned bus," Culbertson said. "Cases of students with medical needs are looked at on an individual basis."

Individual school districts must develop policies on how to handle transporting students in extreme heat, she said.

In Fort Worth, 460 of the district's 464 buses are air-conditioned. The number of units per bus varies from one to three, depending on the size of the bus. If an air-conditioning unit breaks, the driver will use the other air conditioners to cool the bus or open the windows, and then take the bus in for repairs, with buses for special-needs students having a top priority, Fort Worth school district spokesman Clint Bond said.

In Arlington, all buses for special-needs students have air conditioning, and about half the district's fleet is air-conditioned, spokeswoman Amy Casas said.

LaBrake said she moved from Roanoke to a home on the Parker-Hood county line about a year ago. Often, her children ride for about two hours each way on the school bus. She has voiced her concerns about the long bus ride before.

On Tuesday, LaBrake said she's not taking any more chances with the heat. She let her children take the bus to school, but she was there to pick them up in the afternoon.

Elizabeth Campbell, 817-390-7696