MUKILTEO — Joshua Latimer, 7, missed 35 days of school this year due to a legal standoff with the Mukilteo School District.
Instead, Josh, who has been diagnosed with autism, spent his days at a child care center. The developmental disorder can affect social interaction, communication and behavior.
So for the first two months of school, Josh was left watching his friends climb aboard a school bus each morning while he was left behind.
His mom, Leigh Anne Latimer, had asked the school district to transport him from a before- and after-school child care center to and from school.
The school district refused, triggering a hearing before an administrative law judge.
In October, the judge granted a temporary request for the school district to provide Josh transportation until a hearing on the issue could be scheduled.
Josh, a second-grader at Mukilteo’s Endeavour Elementary School, returned to his classroom Oct. 26. He was greeted with colorful handwritten welcome back notes from classmates and his teachers.
But his mom’s legal victory was short lived.
On Dec. 1, the judge’s ruling found that Latimer, who represented herself at the hearing, hadn’t proven that the time her son spent at the child care center was needed as part of his special education.
The busing dispute arose because the child care center is on the north side of 7th Avenue SE near Everett Mall Way.
That’s just outside the school district’s boundary line, which goes down the middle of the street.
Latimer said she cried as she read the judge’s decision. When she picked up Josh that afternoon after work, she said he almost immediately sensed something was wrong.
“How was your day?” he asked, a query that’s become a daily ritual. When she didn’t answer, he asked, “What’s wrong?”
Latimer tried to reassure him, telling him no matter what, everything would be OK.
Her son somehow knew it might have something to do with the battle over riding the bus.
“Will I be at school Monday?” he asked.
A boy who loves school
Latimer said the busing battle is not over. She said she plans to appeal, even though legal fees in the case could be in the thousands of dollars.
School district spokesman Andy Muntz declined to discuss the case. Since it involves the school district in a legal matter, “it’s probably best we not say anything,” he said.
But in an unexpected twist, the district called to say Josh’s transportation would be provided to and from the day care center while the appeal is pursued.
“I was shocked,” Latimer said. “I answered the phone expecting them to say they would discontinue transportation. They said, ‘No, we’re going to continue it,’ which is a great thing.”
Latimer, 27, a single mom, drops Joshua off at the child care center at 7:30 each morning on the way to her job as an architectural designer in Everett.
She said she can’t resolve the case by simply switching Josh to another child care center within the district’s boundaries. Latimer said she’s called at least 30 child care centers, but has been turned down by each one.
Her son, who sometimes has what she called meltdowns and others might call tantrums, has been expelled from several day care centers due to his behavioral issues.
“Most won’t take him because he has autism,” she said. Some child care centers say they don’t have qualified staff. Or they don’t have room for any more school-aged kids. Some tell her more directly that they’ve heard about of her son’s previous expulsions.
The child care center she has been using, Another Best Childcare, has provided a vital bridge in his development on the days when he missed school due to transportation issues — 23 days last school year in addition to the 35 days this school year, she said.
They have kept pushing him to talk, a learned skill not second nature to some children with autism. And staff there helped him build friendships and interact with other kids, she said.
Latimer said she thinks it’s easy for the school district to say it doesn’t have to provide permanent transportation for her son.
“They’re not the ones that have to explain things to Josh and deal with autism on a daily basis,” she said.
He so enjoys his classes that he’s even asked for extra homework. People might not understand how much school means to him, she said.
“The only thing that matters is my son getting the education he deserves and he’s entitled to.”
Sharon Salyer: 425-339-3486; firstname.lastname@example.org.