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CPS Special Olympians miss competition when buses don’t show up

Oshua Martinez, an athlete from Robert Lindblom Math & Science Academy, carries in the torch for the 2016 Special Olympics Chicago Spring Games Opening Ceremonies. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Thursday was the big day for Special Olympics student-athletes at eight Chicago schools.

They were gearing up for their fourth day of competition at the Spring Games, joining thousands of other Special Olympians at Eckersall Stadium in the South Chicago neighborhood to vie for a shot at the state tournament.

The only problem? Their buses never showed up to take them there.

A communication snafu between Chicago Public Schools workers and the private bus company enlisted to shuttle Special Olympians from the eight schools meant dozens of participants missed out on Thursday’s fun.

“Chicago Public Schools should be celebrating these amazing athletes and instead they were not prioritized — and left waiting on the curb,” said Christine Palmieri, of the Chicago Special Education Parent Advocacy Committee.

The district ordered more than 100 buses to get kids from across the city to the competition site at 2423 E. 82nd St., and 12 did not show up.

CPS said they “worked to develop contingency transportation for affected schools,” but students from eight of them weren’t able to make it to their events.

“The district deeply regrets this unacceptable error and we apologize to all of the student-athletes affected by this incident,” CPS officials said in a statement. “We will be conducting a full review of the situation to ensure this does not happen again.”

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A district spokeswoman did not respond when asked which schools or how many students were left out. Those numbers were still being compiled Friday, according to a Special Olympics Chicago spokeswoman who said athletes who showed up late were able still able to participate.

CPS blamed it on a miscommunication with the bus company, First Student, which acknowledged the mistake.

“We understand why parents and students are upset,” spokeswoman Jen Biddinger said in an email. “We, too, are upset about what happened. Providing reliable transportation is a top priority for us and a responsibility we take seriously.”

Palmieri, who was part of the legal fight that led to the implementation of the independent monitor that now oversees CPS’ troubled special education program, called the mix-up unacceptable.

“Obviously something as important as our Olympians attending the Special Olympic Games should have been prioritized,” she said. “CPS, knowing the challenges they already have with transportation companies, should have taken extra steps to ensure these athletes made it to the stadium.”

Transportation went off without a hitch on Friday, according to the district. It was the final day of the Spring Games, which drew nearly 4,000 student-athletes competing in 25 track and field events. Gold medal winners advance to the state competition next month in Bloomington.

Chicago was home to the first-ever Special Olympics competition at Soldier Field in July 1968.