Need a Lift? Private bus companies call taxis to take special needs children home from school

Karen Bojti  – 2023-02-20

Monday Feb 6, 2023

Ring Ring, “This is Stock Transportation Ltd calling to tell ‘the parent’ there is no bus today.  We’ll be putting ‘the child’ in a taxi to bring him home.” Did I hear that correctly?  They want to put my son in a cab to send him home?  I scooped my jaw up from the floor, called the school to say, “Please keep him there.” Flabbergasted, I peeled out of the driveway to pick him up. 

My son is 13 and I’ve experienced several jaw dropping moments in my career as the quintessential autism warrior mom.  It doesn’t help me much that my name is Karen.  This was not my first rodeo. It’s been a while but the memories of tucking my five year-old son under one arm and his diaper bag under the other were fresh enough to remind me why I fled from the school system.

Day 5, no bus and I’m on my way to pick up my son, Charlie

Friday February 10, 2023 was the 5th consecutive day with no school bus or driver available to bring my son home.  Charlie (my kid) is in an autism class at a wonderful school 19.2 kilometers from our home.  You might think that I’d be vexed that service is so poor.  I am not. I resigned myself to chauffeuring my child across the city ages ago. I drove twice that distance four times a day for 6.5 years while my son was attending a full time ABA (Applied Behavioral Analysis) centre.  

I snap a quick photo with my phone waiting to make a left turn off of Victoria Park in Scarborough, Ontario.  I shouldn’t be driving and taking pictures.  Parking on a side street near my son’s school I post the image on Facebook with the caption, “Day 5”. The responses come fast with some sad emoji’s and some with that little heart against a sympathetic round face to indicate caring.  There were a few “WOWS” mixed in with the reactions too.  

Charlie is a legacy kid meaning that he is part of the last cohort of children to have received full time clinically supervised interventions. These programs are designed to prepare children for family life, the school environment and the outside world. His centre taught him hundreds of skills from toileting and dressing himself to waiting his turn, playing tag, reading and staying calm in grocery stores. You can see it all in  Charlie’s Great Grocery Adventure.


Riding the bus

Ironically, busing was tough for him as a junior kindergartener.  A lot of work went into teaching him how to manage long school bus rides.  The day he finally rode a school bus independently (7 years later) marked a huge achievement for my son. It never dawned on me that we should have taught him how to ride in a cab unsupervised as well. 

Riding a school bus caused my son levels of distress that I would not wish upon my worst enemy. He was afraid. To make matters worse drivers played loud music on the commutes perhaps thinking that the kids would be entertained. At that time, music from speakers caused him enormous distress.   

Try as I might to explain this to the drivers, the bus company and even his school, my pleas went nowhere. I could not possibly put him on the bus to arrive at school in such a state. No one would be able to handle him. Coming home daily it took him many hours to calm down after the ride home. This was torture for him.

Perhaps you can imagine that putting my son into a taxi cab alone is absolutely unthinkable for a parent like me. 

I have been called to the school at least half a dozen times to pick up my son since September. On Halloween, the bus company was a no show with no notice. I had to hop in the car and go to school to get him. Arriving at my son’s school at 5 pm to an empty building Charlie and the principal were waiting for me. The principal was anxious and started apologizing before the door was fully open.  So while other children had sprinted home to drive their parent’s nuts asking when they could leave for trick or treating, I stood in the doorway feeling terrible for this lady. None of this was her fault.

In an attempt to ease the principal’s mind, I shared some of our story with her. I have been pivoting between demands so long that any sense of entitlement that I may feel about fair treatment has long been extinguished. I did say that I learned the hard way that there was no accountability when the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) passes kids onto private companies to get them home. All any of us could do was yell at a dispatcher who was likely accustomed to hearing angry people on the other line. The principal’s eyes widened and she confided that in, days gone by, her mom was a bus driver employed by the school board. She wore a uniform and worked proudly for the school system until retirement.  She knew the children in her care and ensured their safety from door to door.  “My mom just can’t believe what’s happening today”. 


Struggle to get basic safety

Back to the cab situation: The following is a letter that I sent to the Director of Education, the Ministry of Education, the school’s Superintendent, the School Trustee and the Toronto Student Transportation Group.  We, “Karen’s” cover our bases.

Dear (See Above),

Remember the adage, “Don’t get into cars with strangers.”? Perhaps you can imagine my surprise.  I discovered that the TDSB has hired bus companies who habitually call cabs to bring developmentally disabled children home. This practice has to stop. The TDSB has to intervene and end this dangerous practice immediately. 

In an era where  we ask parents like me to submit criminal background checks to volunteer in schools, why are we are ok with putting vulnerable kids in cars with strangers? As a parent with an autistic child, I approve of safety precautions, even if I am inconvenienced.  When I see a school ensuring that all adults interacting with children in the school have been vetted, I applaud their due diligence. So what gives here?

On the afternoon of Monday February 9th I received a phone call.On the afternoon of Monday February 9th I received a phone call from a man at Stock Transportation Ltd telling me that they were about to send my autistic child home in a taxi. Huh? I told this man that I’d need to check in with the school and then he hung up.   

There were no attempts to confirm that I am “the parent” or ask for me by name or identify who “the child” was. What could possibly go wrong?

Since then, I have discovered that this is a common practice in Toronto and perhaps other cities.  Families with kids who bus to school know well that the system is under strain. Companies have a hard time keeping drivers, currently it seems that if one driver is absent the whole network falls apart.  

How on earth can you track a child who has left school, placed in the hands of a private bus company only to employ a third party to deliver kids safely? Would you put a diamond ring in a cab and send it across town?  Yet, you’re willing to send young children with complex needs in taxis.  

“Where am I?  Who is this?  I am outta here – such a child might ask. Some of these kids are escape artists, runners or suffer from high levels of anxiety.  Let’s be real here in these dangerous times.  Would you allow YOUR child into a car with an unprepared and untrained adult in a city the grinds to a halt on a regular basis?  Many of these kids cannot recount their experiences. 

How long will a child have to ride in a taxi through the average rainstorm? What happens if there is a car accident? I can’t imagine what a terrible feeling it is for staff to put children in taxis. They’ll have no idea if they got home that night. 

Families with Spec Ed kids put up with a lot.  We all know it. The health and safety of children cannot be managed so precariously in the hopes that no one will be hurt.  You must intervene today, sit down with all of the contracted bus companies and do better.  

Be warned.  The Ford government’s dramatic changes to the Ontario Autism Program has meant that children who needed full time interventions have not and will not receive them.  If they are “lucky”, they’ll attend school part time and part time in therapy centres.  You will be receiving more requests for special education placements, bussing and accommodations.  The floodgates are opening up. You must protect these vulnerable children.

Thank you for your attention,  

Karen Bojti


Supporters responses

With a weeks’ worth of posts, the comment section on my Facebook page was abuzz.  My son’s old kindergarten teacher (now retired) wrote:

“That has happened for years unfortunately. I will never forget having to put a beautiful nonverbal child in a cab in a major snow storm. I was never more uncomfortable in my life!! I even called the Director of Education for clarification since the Principal had already left. (This was Scarborough Board of Ed).”

Another friend posted:

“I recently applied for a job as a bus driver with First Student. Here is what I learned:

1) They often pay below minimum wage because contracts between the bus service and the Province are signed to last for 5-10 years.

2) No overtime pay at all. So if the weather sucks and the bus route takes longer, tough crap. The driver is not compensated.

3) Even though the drivers make between $11-$15 an hour, depending on the age of the contract, they must pay union dues.

4) Drivers only get 4 hours a day so they often have to prioritize other work.

It was such a bad deal, I took a job in PHONE SALES instead. Why they don’t take better care of the drivers? I have no idea.

A fellow parent posted:

“Ughhh, it’s hard to take on another load with fighting the school board.

They once wanted us to put R in a taxi in JK. He was 3!!!”

For me, this is just another day to accept the situation and pivot.  I was reticent to speak up because I know what will happen. Nothing.

 A teacher friend encouraged me to follow-up by writing:

“A long time ago I was told “if you continue to make a broken system work then, according to management, it’s not broken.” If parents continue to “pick up the slack as parents do” then the system isn’t broken in management’s eyes. If you don’t go up the food chain, then nothing will change. Teachers and EAs WANT you to speak up. They have no ability to “punch up”. Parents do.

You’re right Karen. It’s yet another hill to climb and as parents of special needs kids, we are exhausted from all the fights. I’m sorry you are going through this. But every parent that speaks up ends up helping 20 parents who can’t speak up. Remember the key words are ‘safety, liability and lawsuit’. That always rattles their cage.”


Bureaucrats responses

Here are the responses that I have received thus far:

Director of Education (Director’s Office)

This is to acknowledge receipt of your email in the office of the Director of Education.

Thank you for bringing this important issue to our attention.  Please let us know what school your child attends so that we may better address your concerns. 


Ministry of Education (Stephen Lecce)

No response

School Trustee (Neethan Shan)

No response


School Superintendent

“Thank you for bringing your concerns related to student transportation and safety to our attention.  At the TDSB, student safety remains a priority and we are continually seeking ways to improve the services being provided to students and families. 

Rest assured that your views will be shared with the appropriate departments and personnel.”


Toronto Student Transportation Group

This is a group whose “goal is to ensure the health and safety of our students through various modes of transportation.” It is run by Toronto DSB and Toronto Catholic DSB. 

“Thank you for you re-mail and apologies for the service-related issues you experienced.  We will be reaching out to the bus company as what you describe is not how we expect services to be delivered.  We do allow bus operators to subcontract work to taxi companies when they are unable to fulfill their contractual obligation to get students to and from school in a timely manner.  There is a school bus driver shortage in the city and companies are struggling to have drivers in every seat every day.  However, there are conditions about who can be sent in a taxi.  One of the prime requirements for taxi use is to gain parental consent for the service.  It does not sound like the company even asked.  Expectation is that without a driver they may offer a taxi for use but if the parent is uncomfortable with this option or the student has needs that makes taxi service an impractical and unsafe option then a school bus will be sent, albeit late to service the student.  This is not a new protocol so we will be investigating how this company manages these decisions and ensure they are following proper protocols.”

I sent the TDSB and Stock Transportation Ltd a few follow-up questions. I have not received a response.

      • Did they know the circumstances under which bus companies send taxi’s for students instead of a school bus and driver?  
      • Are there protocols for the bus company as to how consent is solicited from parents?
      • Does anyone track the child once they have left school property? 
      • Should a child become lost, distressed or harmed, are there any incident reports or is data kept in some other way?


What now?

So what’s a Karen like me supposed to do now? Despite our reputation, I dislike conflict.  I’d rather help with pizza lunches than worry about vulnerable kids. I curse this voice in my head that says, “If not you, then who?” I received three assurances that the issue will be addressed. That should be enough right? There’s probably a lot of agreement here that the bus company did not handle our case appropriately. Or in other words, they did not “handle” ME, appropriately.

If you are lucky, you learn the lesson early that the right setting for your child is never close to home. This means a lot of long commutes for both you and your kid. You’re on your own and you have to figure out how to manage. Children with siblings and two working parents are disadvantaged at the onset.  In my son’s diagnostic kindergarten, he was the only student to move onto a full time intervention program. The other six students stayed in the school system partly because their parents could not manage transporting their kids to therapy centres.

Today the situation is far worse.  The new Ontario Autism Program funding structure guarantees that profoundly affected children will not access full-time programs. More children like my lovely boy are coming to school instead of receiving therapy at clinically supervised centres. Their parents will be shopping for part-time therapy, asking for more supports in school, requesting EAs- who will continue to be unavailable- and they’ll all need busing.  Since we insist on sending kids away from their home schools, the system will have to add in more buses- not fewer. These young children will have not one but two commutes a day before coming home for the evening.

It’s always been the case that parents have to straddle two ministries i.e. Education and Social services, neither one coordinating with the other. Historically, families have had to make hard choices between school or therapy only to learn too late whether or not they made the right decision.

I expect that there will be a few rounds of emails. There will be attempts to calm me down and reassure me that theytake my concerns seriously. What they do not know is that I am unruffled and resigned to my fate. My son will be ok. I will step in when needed and, if we’re fortunate, my son will not be hurt or traumatized again. At least I hope not. I have built up his resistance. It’s a process but we’re well underway. I count my lucky stars because I know what lies in store for the current cohort of kids like my son.

The practice of putting kids in cabs is egregious. Families have no choice but to send their kids to schools miles from home.  Parents with more than one child can’t drop everything to travel across town. So, sure they will consent to putting their child in a taxi. What choice do some families have? They likely have no idea that their child has been passed on to a third party. I bet that’s not part of the conversation soliciting their informed consent. Their kids already leave home earlier, spend less time in school and come home, whenever.  

Remember the days when your friend’s mom would help your mom out in a jam if she was stuck at work? Over time neighbours build relationships with one another and help each other out.  Our kids will never have that.  Instead, there’s a whole network of education professionals set in place to keep the system, as it stands, running and they are experts at keeping families at arm’s length. It’s something that Karens like me need to accept. But, at the very least, children need to come home safely without distress.  Don’t you think?

Karen Bojti is a mom from Scarborough to a cool kid with amazing friends who get thrown under the policies and regulations bus.