COLUMBIA, S.C. (QUEEN CITY NEWS) — It took the South Carolina Board of Education exactly 1,681 days from the brutal attacks of two Chesterfield County special needs students onboard a school bus in 2018 to look at a new bus rule that require districts staff the state’s special needs buses with a second adult.

The board will meet at 1 p.m. Tuesday, June 13, in Columbia for a first reading on a proposed Department of Education regulation that was supposed to do that. 

However, the proposed regulation doesn’t actually require districts to do anything. In February, the SCDOE worked to kill a House bill that would have forced districts to put another adult on school buses with restrained children. The proposed regulation tells districts they “should” put an adult attendant on a special needs bus “if” aides are available.

The need for a second adult on special needs buses was highlighted in a Nov. 5, 2018, bus ride in Chesterfield County. Autumn Angle, a 4-year-old non-verbal autistic girl, walked up the steps of her special needs bus and into the arms of her bus driver.

The driver sat Angle down in her seat and secured her harness for the 45-minute ride to Ruby Elementary School.

That day’s bus rides would end up costing Chesterfield County and South Carolina taxpayers nearly $2.5 million to settle two lawsuits after two non-verbal, autistic children were attacked more than 100 times by an older, unrestrained child.

The lawsuits were filed by Angle and Nyzeil Wilson’s families.

Wilson was also attacked on that day’s bus ride. His family claimed $223,437.50 of the total of nearly $2.5 million paid to settle the lawsuits.

Previous Reports | The Longest Ride

The settlement money wasn’t a windfall for the Angle and Wilson families. The court placed strict guidelines on its use, requiring a probate judge’s approval for every dollar spent – dollars that can only be spent on things that the court deems directly benefits the children.

The was no other adult on the bus ride that day, which meant the school district left driver Ronnie Sires alone to drive the bus, monitor the children, and to operate the wheelchair lift on the bus.

The onboard video showed Sires leaving the bus to operate the lift while the children were left alone. State law prohibits school districts from operating buses with wheelchair lifts with a driver alone, but the state never took action against the Chesterfield County School District over that violation.

Rep. Richie Yow, a Chesterfield County Republican South Carolina House member, told Queen City News in our ‘The Longest Ride’ investigation last fall that he would introduce a bill in December 2022 requiring all of the state’s school districts to place an adult attendant on a special needs bus where a child was restrained.

A second Yow bill would require districts to share student health and behavioral problems with bus drivers. That bill never made it out of committee.

Yow’s bills ended up in the House Education and Public Works Committee, chaired by Rep. Shannon Erickson, but were never debated in that committee. Erickson also never responded to interview requests or questions about her position on Yow’s bills. Instead, in a hearing in February, the Joint K-12 Subcommittee and Public Safety Subcommittee met to discuss Yow’s attendant bill.

Phillip Cease, the SCDOE’s equivalent of an in-house lobbyist, told the subcommittees Yow’s bills were unnecessary, “The department (SCDOE) doesn’t understand why this legislation was introduced,” Cease told the subcommittee on Feb. 21, despite having met with the bill’s author, Rep. Yow, a week earlier.

“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.”

Angle and Wilson’s attorney, Patrick McLaughlin, reminded lawmakers the SCDOE’s had nearly five years now to implement regulations requiring adult attendants and to force school districts to share health and safety information with special needs bus drivers.

Neither the SCDOE nor state lawmakers have taken steps to do so.

“So, when I hear Mr. Cease get up here and explain to y’all today, how y’all don’t need to pass a law that the Department of Ed is going to take care of this with regulations, where’s the regs? Where have they been? This happened in 2018. The school district had been warned by the Department of Ed two months before these attacks happened; if you don’t put an adult attendant on these buses, with children that have mental and emotional issues, you are putting the driver, the other children on the bus and the general public at risk. The department of ed knew that,” McLaughlin said.

“The Department of Ed knows it. They knew that this was a problem, and they never passed the regs. And now they want to stand in front of you as y’all consider passing this law and say, ‘We don’t need you to pass this law, we’re gonna get right on it.’ I beg your pardon. If my clients don’t quite trust that, if my clients would prefer to see you guys take the initiative and pass the law,” the attorney told lawmakers.

Lawmakers decided to give the SCDOE 30 days to draft a proposed regulation.

The proposed regulation doesn’t require any South Carolina school district to act,” 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.

“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.

“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 at the time.

The SC Board of Education meets in Columbia Tuesday at 1 p.m. where the proposed regulation is set for first reading. Queen City News will carry the meeting live on our digital platforms.

We’ll broadcast a full report on the outcome and debate on Queen City News at 10.