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Sandy Island: Civil rights complaint leads to handicapped access plan

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Superintendent Randy Dozier released details of an agreement between the Georgetown County School District and the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights this week, ensuring that students on Sandy Island with physical disabilities and their parents or guardians will have transportation for educational programs and activities.

Even though there are no disabled students from Sandy Island attending Georgetown County Schools, a complaint was filed with the Office for Civil Rights in 2011 alleging discrimination on the basis of race and disability. Most of the island’s residents are African-American. School district data indicated there were 10 to 14 students on the island during the last school year.

The school district agreed to submit a plan for transporting impaired students and their parents or guardians across the Waccamaw River between the island and the mainland by March 1 and to implement it by April 1. The district also agreed to revise its website by April 1 to indicate that transportation will be provided any impaired student living on Sandy Island.

An investigation concluded two of the three allegations in the complaint were without merit: that the school district fails to provide bus transportation from students’ homes on Sandy Island to the boat landing and it does not ensure that the boat is heated or adequately maintained to prevent students from inhaling harmful fumes from the motor.

Evidence was presented that the third allegation — the school boat and the landings on the island and the mainland are not fully handicapped-accessible — is factual.

On school days, a seven-passenger Jeep, driven by the boat operator, picks up students living more than a mile from the landing. District staff said that most students on the island live within “easy walking distance” of the landing. Four students used the Jeep during the 2011-12 school year. Investigators found no one dissatisfied with the transportation and concluded there was insufficient evidence of discrimination.

Investigators said they have not received information confirming that the Jeep used on the island is wheelchair accessible and it is unclear whether it or other vehicles at the school district’s disposal could accommodate wheelchairs, scooters or other devices used by individuals with mobility impairments. Roads on the island are not paved, and large vehicles could encounter problems on the sand roads. Once students reach the mainland, handicapped-accessible vehicles are available.

Investigators also found allegations that the boat is unheated and that students are subjected to fumes from the engine to be untrue. The school district reported that the school boat is heated and inspected annually by the U.S. Coast Guard and every six weeks by the S.C. Department of Education. The school boat operator said the exhaust is at the stern and does not blow into the passenger compartment. The operator said he had never had a complaint.

The complainant told Office for Civil Rights inspectors that he was concerned that neither the boat landings nor the school boat meet federal guidelines. School district staff acknowledged that the school boat is inaccessible to impaired individuals and boat landings do not fully comply with federal requirements. Staff members maintain, the report says, that no students with mobility impairments have ever lived on Sandy Island.

Landings on the mainland and the island are owned and maintained by Georgetown County. Both landings were built in the 1970s, and the landing on the island was rebuilt in 2003 by the Georgetown County Department of Public Services.

Boat travel to the island has been a topic of concern since three people in a private boat drowned in 2009. Efforts to secure a ferry for all the island’s residents have been unsuccessful.

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