Canberra's Education Directorate told a single mum it could not help transport her autistic son to school despite having a spare seat on a bus for students with disability already travelling the route.
Instead, the directorate suggested Nancy Ju move her son
to a school closer to home, noting she had agreed at his 2014 enrolment to transport him to Duffy Primary from their Chisholm home.
The decision was based on the earlier agreement, not capacity, internal documents released under freedom of information confirmed. Ms Ju's worsening mental health was also recognised in internal reports with a ministerial briefing noting "providing access to [special needs transport] would assist Ms Ju, acknowledging the challenges she faces without any available family supports".
This week it stuck to its guns in continuing to refuse Allan access to special needs transport.
"In a situation where a family advises they wish to enrol a student in a learning support unit at a school that is not nearby, when appropriate programs are available closer to home, they are advised special needs transport is not provided," a directorate spokesman said.
Transport Canberra data shows 346 students with disabilities and 26 introductory English class students are transported to 45 Canberra schools under the special needs transport program.
A suite of rejection letters also released to the Sunday Canberra Times under freedom of information showed other families were knocked back from accessing special needs transport both because their child's school was in their priority enrolment area and because it was too far away.
One parent's application was declined even though they could not drive and their child "cannot read or will be able to understand where to get/off change buses ... [and] would not be able to ask for assistance if he needed it" on public transport. The reason for rejection was not clear in documents seen by the Sunday Canberra Times.
Ms Ju has been fighting for Allan's seat on the bus for several years. She acknowledged Duffy was not her local school but said she enrolled Allan because it was recommended by an Autism Spectrum Australia early intervention specialist as the right fit for his developmental level.
She was fine to transport him at the time of the 2013 agreement but has experienced significant distress since, she said. Ms Ju said she was now reluctant to move him from a space in which he has thrived.
The ACT Disability, Aged and Carer Advocacy Service took up Ms Ju's case in 2015, supported by Carers ACT and Ms Ju's psychologist, Michelle Deponte. Former education minister Joy Burch has also lobbied on Ms Ju's behalf, as has Canberra Liberals education spokeswoman Elizabeth Lee.
Special needs transport routes provided to the Sunday Canberra Times show a bus travelled from Tuggeranong to Duffy Primary last year, collecting a student or students in Gordon.
On May 29, 2017, a Transport Canberra staff member confirmed to the Education Directorate: " ... there is a bus that services [redacted] to Duffy and there is space there to go via Chisholm but currently the bus does not go near there."
An internal email on June 6, 2017, clarified: "[A Transport Canberra staff member] confirmed that the decision (about Allan's transport) was about placement and the parent was always aware they would not be provided transport as they elected not to accept the closest program."
Allan has been a recipient of the NDIS since 2015 but the NDIA has repeatedly informed Ms Ju it cannot fund special needs transport without the directorate's approval. The directorate will not agree to the trip.
The Education Directorate spokesman said special needs transport was aimed at helping students travel to their closest "appropriate and available" learning support program and was not usually provided if a family chose a further location.
"Providing transport to students in these circumstances can mean either that the student needs to move between vehicles to complete the trip or experience a very long trip," he said.
"There are also potential implications for other students using the same special needs transport option. While there may be some instances where special needs transport is provided to students who are not accessing their closest appropriate program, this only occurs when there were no vacancies available in programs closer to their home, as per the special needs transport Guidelines.
"The directorate is committed to providing the best possible education options for all children with disabilities and continues to collaborate with Ms Ju around the educational needs of her son."
Fighting for a seat on the bus
By The Canberra Times
Special needs transport to school should be available for all those who need it, within reason.
For the ACT government to reject special needs transport to primary school for an autistic boy whose single mother is suffering serious mental health issues illustrates a system where priorities are apparently lacking.
Particularly as, by the government’s own admission, a vehicle with capacity to carry another passenger was travelling the same route.
Nancy Ju is one of a number of parents in Canberra asking for the government’s help to transport their children, who have special needs, to school.
Ms Ju’s son, 10-year-old Allan, suffers autism.
She reasonably requested transport to take him from their Chisholm home to Duffy Primary, and has been fighting for Allan's seat on the bus for several years. She acknowledged Duffy was not her local school but said she enrolled Allan because it was recommended by an Autism Spectrum Australia early intervention specialist.
But the government has continually rejected the request because Allan isn’t being schooled at their closest "appropriate and available" learning support program.
However, The Sunday Canberra Times today revealed that other families in the ACT have been rejected from the special needs transport service for contradictory reasons; both because their child was enrolled in their priority enrollment area and because they were not.
One parent's application was declined even though they could not drive and their child "cannot read or will be able to understand where to get/off change buses ... [and] would not be able to ask for assistance if he needed it" on public transport.
As with all public services, there are of course limitations. However the government has refused a reasonable request from individual because it did not conform to confusing and restrictive guidelines.
Fighting for a seat on the bus shouldn’t be this hard.
There is no doubt that the government should be applauded for the 346 students with disabilities that are being transported to school across the territory.
However, as is the case for Allan who has settled into a school where he is thriving, the government needs to acknowledge and prioritise the human impact before rejecting the request of a mother in need.