COLUMBIA, S.C. (QUEEN CITY NEWS) – Nearly three months after South Carolina lawmakers agreed to allow the SC Department of Education to create a rule requiring adult attendants on special-needs buses, the proposed rule is now public.
The SCDOE had nearly five years to create safeguards after two special needs students were brutally attacked on a Chesterfield County school bus in 2018. The attacks included kicks, bites, and punches to Angle’s face, as well as pinches that left deep bruising up and down the left side of the girl’s body.
“A student with a disability shall be transported on a bus staffed with an aide if the student’s Individualized Education Program so specifies,” according to the public notice from the SCDOE published to the State Register on April 28.
The line made technical changes to existing state law requiring school districts to provide an aide to students when their IEP calls for one. But the
The SCDOE’s proposed regulation does not mandate school districts to provide aides on special needs buses, “If the school district has additional aides available, buses should be staffed with an aide in the following order,” the proposed regulation states.
Buses carrying a student in a wheelchair would be prioritized if an aide is available, then buses “transporting a student in a Child Safety Restraint System – excluding standard seatbelts,” would have a chance to be provided an aide.
The SCDOE’s proposed regulation is the state’s education agency’s first swing at developing a rule instead of the legislature passing Rep. Richie Yow’s bus bill that would have required every SC school district to provide an aide on any special needs bus carrying restrained children.
“It’s a joke. It does absolutely nothing of what Rep. Yow’s bill meant to accomplish,” Patrick McLaughin told Queen City News Chief Investigator Jody Barr. “For the department of Ed to get up there in front of that joint subcommittee and say we’re going to take care of this with regulations – whoever wrote this regulation, I would say they should be ashamed, but that would imply that they have capacity for shame,” McLaughlin said.
McLaughlin sued the Chesterfield County School District, CCSD Superintendent Harrison Goodwin, bus driver Ronnie Sires, and the SCDOE in 2018 after Autumn Angle, a 4-year-old nonverbal child with autism, was attacked nearly 100 times on a Chesterfield County school bus. McLaughlin won a $2.2 million settlement for the Angle family in 2022.
On Feb. 17, McLaughlin was in the early stages of a second lawsuit for the family of Nyzeil Wilson, a second student onboard the bus with Angle in 2018. Video recordings show Wilson was attacked by the same unrestrained student who brutally attacked Angle on the rides to and from Ruby Elementary School on Nov. 5, 2018. Wilson, who was attacked far fewer times than Angle.
McLaughlin settled Wilson’s claim with the CCSD agreeing to pay $200,000 and the SCDOE paying $23,437.50. In both cases, the defendants “deny liability of any nature or kind,” the settlement agreements show.
The state still has no law requiring adult attendants on special needs buses.
There’s also no law requiring school districts tell bus drivers about students with health/behavioral conditions that could impact the health and safety of other students on the bus. Yow filed a second bill requiring districts share this information with bus drivers, but Rep. Shannon Erickson, who chairs the House Education and Public Works Committee, never called that bill before the committee for consideration, the State House online bill tracking program shows.
In February, a House joint committee met to debate Yow’s bus aides bill. There, SCDOE’s Government Affairs head, Phillip Cease, publicly fought Yow’s bus bill.
“The department doesn’t understand why this legislation was introduced,” Cease told lawmakers.
Cease was aware of Yow’s reasons for drafting the bill and had met with Yow days before the committee meeting to discuss the merits of the proposed legislation, Yow told QCN.
The SCDOE wanted lawmakers to ignore Yow’s bill.
“Upon further investigation, under current statutes, the department is able to write legislations, and the state board of education is able to adopt those regulations so that local school districts have to abide by those. So we can promulgate regulations in-house without the need of additional legislation,” Cease told the committee in February.
The committee agreed to let the SCDOE draft a proposed regulation that would do what Yow’s bill would. The committee gave Cease 30 days to present the regulation to the House panel.
Weeks later, Cease sent House Regulations Committee Chairman Jeff Bradley the proposed regulation. But unlike Yow’s bill, the regulation doesn’t require school districts to do anything.
“This is ridiculous to claim it addresses the problems that led to my client being attacked, and anyone who tries to claim this regulation solves a known problem that the Department of Ed has known before these attacks ever happened, but certainly in the five years that they did occur, for them to try to claim that this proposed regulation solves anything is either hopelessly ignorant or willfully disingenuous. Because this reg does nothing,” McLaughlin told QCN.
The February decision by the House joint committee meant not only was Yow’s bill dead, but it was too late in the legislative session for the regulation to make its way through the system before the end of session.
“It says a lot of ifs and a lot of shoulds,” Rep. Yow said as he held the proposed regulation in his hands for the first time during an interview with QCN last week.
“They failed to support our language, they failed to support our bill. They come back and said that they could do it in a regulation within 30 days, they’ve waited to the end of the year to put this regulation out knowing that it cannot be done when we had the opportunity,” Yow said.
The SC Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Office published a Fiscal Impact Summary, an estimate of what Yow’s bill could cost taxpayers. The summary includes a statement from the SCDOE that the agency, “…indicates that the agency can manage implementing the provisions of the bill within existing appropriations.” The summary shows the SCDOE made that statement in a March 3, 2023 response to the RFAO.
The summary also shows the legislature currently funds 203 bus driver aids across the state at $638 per year.
“The cost is relatively minor considering the potential harm that can occur,” McLaughlin said – nothing he told the House committee in February that the state would pay one way or another if another special needs child is harmed on a South Carolina school bus.
“Who wants to be the one to say we didn’t protect a single special needs child over $638 a year? Who wants to justify that? Show me the South Carolina representative or state senator who’s going to stand up in the General Assembly and argue that. I’d be amazed,” McLaughlin said.
“Why would it be so hard? Why would they fight this so bad? When they put it in writing that the agency can manage implementing the provisions within this bill, the bill that we drafted with support with existing appropriations. I don’t understand it. I don’t agree with it. And I think that it’s sad day in South Carolina. It’s sad day when we fail to look after our children. We fail to look after our especially our children that are special to us to the state that have so much more to overcome than you and I,” Yow said in an interview in May.
Yow said the difference between his bill and the SCDOE’s proposed regulation is clear: the regulation doesn’t require any school district in South Carolina to do anything different than they’ve done since the day of the bus attacks in his home county.
“I think this is politics at best, and I don’t think that the people of South Carolina want to play politics with childrens’ lives. I’m not about playing politics, and that’s what this is. There’s lives at stake, there’s children at stake, and whoever drafted the regulation, whoever was in charge of the regulation, whoever fought the bill is playing politics with the children of South Carolina. And it is high time that it stopped, and it stopped right now,” Yow said.
Yow said if the final regulation doesn’t include language forcing districts to staff their special needs buses with aides, he’ll reintroduce his bill again in December and will work for passage when the legislature reconvenes in January.
SCDOE AVOIDS INTERVIEW REQUESTS
Throughout our ‘The Longest Ride’ investigation, we asked SCDOE Superintendent Ellen Weaver for an interview to discuss the agency’s plans to address what happened in Chesterfield County. Weaver had never agreed to interview with us since taking office in January.
We also emailed every member of the SC Board of Education in February. We emailed the board a second time a week later, but not a single member of the board ever responded.
Each request we sent included a link to our reporting and a detailed background of why we wanted to talk to each official.
Still, no one responded.
In an email exchange last week, Laura Bayne, a SCDOE spokeswoman, agreed to meet for an interview. However, Bayne was not available until the day after our deadline to publish this report. Bayne send us this statement regarding the proposed regulation:
“As you’ve previously reported, SCDE staff did advise Chesterfield in advance that an aid was needed on the bus. The SCDE remains committed to do everything within our power to prevent a similar set of circumstances. The Department does believe that a regulation is the most appropriate avenue to address this topic. The regulatory process requires a structured public input period, ensuring all interested parties have the opportunity to contribute to the final product. And, given the intersection of many federal and state requirements that can impact operation of buses, the regulatory process allows for the level of detail and precision needed to avoid unintended consequences (such as students having no way to get to school if there are aid staffing shortages or if a scheduled staff member is out sick unexpectedly).”
Laura J. Bayne, Deputy Superintendent of Strategic Engagement
We attended the SC Board of Education meeting on May 9 after informing Bayne we’d conduct an interview with Weaver wherever we found her. Bayne did not respond to that email.
Weaver walked into the board room just before the meeting started at 1 p.m. She sat in a seat beside the board chairwoman, Crystal Stapleton, throughout the meeting. When the board voted to go into a closed-door session, Weaver got up and walked out of the room with the board.
Weaver never returned to the board room. She even missed a public hearing concerning a decision she made to place a South Carolina school district under Fiscal Watch. The board voted on Weaver’s decision in that public hearing. An attorney representing the school board mentioned several times that he expected to see Weaver at the hearing, but did not expect her absence.
Weaver also did not respond to a text Barr sent to her cell phone during the May 9 meeting after she didn’t return from the executive session.
We asked Chairwoman Stapleton for an interview, but she told Barr she was late to a meeting and that she’s have the agency’s communications staff respond. Stapleton left the board room without answering any questions regarding the bus attacks or the agency’s proposed regulation.
The regulation was published in the State Register under what’s known as a drafting notice, telling the public about the proposed regulation, providing a summary of its purpose, and a way for the public to submit comments to the SCDOE during the public comment period.
Here’s how to submit your comments on the proposed regulation to the SCDOE:
- By Mail: 1429 Senate Street, Columbia, SC 29201
- By email: email@example.com (Phillip Cease, Dir. Governmental Affairs)
Comments must be received no later than 5 p.m. on May 29, the close of the drafting comment period, the State Register document shows.
The first reading of the proposed regulation happens on June 13, before the SC Board of Education at its next full board meeting in Columbia. You can find the posting meeting times and agendas for all SBE meetings at this highlighted hyperlink.
The SBE meetings are open to the public.