Wednesday, November 22, 2017
Education

Hillsborough school bus drivers' complaints and safety concerns mount

RECOMMENDED READING


TAMPA — Dana Campbell had to drive a child in a wheelchair with wheels coming off the frame. Otella Lowe was stranded and no one could find her on the school district's global positioning system.

Twila Tillman asked a group of bus drivers who met Monday night in Valrico if they had been trained to care for their medically fragile students. "No," they said in unison.

About 80 drivers gathered for the second of two town hall meetings organized by Hillsborough County School Board members about school transportation, particularly involving special-needs children. They described faulty equipment, inadequate training and management decisions they say are misguided.

"I have two years left, and I can't wait," said driver Debra Wilson, who joined the district in 1982 and is preparing to retire.

Ever since four trainers in exceptional student education (ESE) transportation put their complaints in writing, drivers have been speaking out at board meetings and forums hosted by a contingent of the board that is increasingly challenging the administration.

Member Susan Valdes, who organized the first gathering on March 17, and Cindy Stuart, who has asked questions mostly behind the scenes, stood with April Griffin, who organized the Valrico meeting.

"I want our children to be safe," said Griffin, who has announced she is running for re-election this year but has not yet filed. "And I want you to have job security. And we have to look out for the taxpayers' dollars, too."

The drivers gathered on the evening before a meeting in which School Board members are expected to approve an $800,000 court settlement with the Herrera family, whose 7-year-old daughter Isabella died in 2012 after suffering respiratory failure on a bus.

The district's Business Process Improvement department is conducting its own focus groups of transportation employees. Separately, a consultant is assessing the department as it prepares to replace some of its buses.

But Griffin has made it clear she doesn't trust superintendent MaryEllen Elia's administration, which is compiling its research into a series of reports.

"I'm done," she said. "I'm tired of Powerpoint after Powerpoint."

Monday's remarks, which were not rebutted by anyone from Elia's staff, touched on workplace issues, including locked rest rooms and retaliation; and logistical problems such as radios that don't work and equipment that's inadequate for disabled children.

"I've been driving ESE for six years," said Mike Angel. "I've received no hands-on training. The straps are rotting that you actually tie the wheelchairs down with."

His attendant, meanwhile, works without medical benefits, he said. "She's been bit, scratched, hit and kicked."

Some longtime drivers said the system suffered after a reorganization in 2008 that centralized some operations to save money. As a result, they said, trainers and supervisors for the ESE drivers were no longer based in area offices near the drivers.

There were complaints about a new computerized routing system. Drivers said they know how to get around, but the routers sometimes take them on roads that don't exist.

Driver Gigi Aad said she was hit in the face during an incident that began when a child had a seizure. Try as she might, she said, she could not get assistance from dispatch, known as K-6. "I kept saying, 'K-6, K-6, K-6. I have a child who's had a seizure.' "

Drivers said there are not enough dispatch operators and mechanics. A few said they fear they'll be left holding the bag if something goes wrong.

"If I get fired tomorrow, I get $320 a month for 20 years of hard work," said bus attendant Peggy Raiton.

Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected]

Comments
Pasco students score big at Junior Thespian Festival

Pasco students score big at Junior Thespian Festival

NEW PORT RICHEY — Pasco schools brought home 20 top honors from the District 11 Junior Thespian Festival, which included 22 schools from Pinellas, Pasco, Hernando and Manatee counties and took place at the new River Ridge FAME Academy on Nov. 17 and ...
Updated: 9 minutes ago
A year after impasse, Pasco school contract talks run more smoothly

A year after impasse, Pasco school contract talks run more smoothly

LAND O’LAKES — Representatives from the Pasco County school district and the United School Employees of Pasco sat together several times in the weeks leading to Thanksgiving break, trading contract proposals amid (mostly) amicable conversation.They c...
Updated: 2 hours ago
Epilogue: Music professor Rita Osborn insisted that her students experience the arts live

Epilogue: Music professor Rita Osborn insisted that her students experience the arts live

The thousands of students who signed up for Rita Osborn’s music and humanities classes at St. Petersburg Junior College knew what they had to do to pass.They could study and memorize material for tests, but they wouldn’t earn more than a C if they di...
Updated: 11 minutes ago
USF professors honored as AAAS Fellows

USF professors honored as AAAS Fellows

Six University of South Florida professors whose research efforts span biology, engineering, chemistry and business have been selected as Fellows to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the organization announced Nov. 20.Election ...
Updated: 19 minutes ago
When school is out, a Pinellas camp for autistic kids offers a much-needed service

When school is out, a Pinellas camp for autistic kids offers a much-needed service

ST. PETERSBURG — Matt Wiseman’s cell phone rings at least once a week, usually after 9 p.m., with a call from a desperate parent. The voice on the line is tired, defeated. Once again, their child was excluded from an after-school program or summer ca...
Updated: 2 hours ago

University of Central Florida suspends sorority for hazing

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — A University of Central Florida sorority has been suspended after its members were accused of hazing, underage drinking and providing false information to law enforcement.The university placed Alpha Xi Delta on an interim suspens...
Published: 11/21/17
10 African-Americans named Rhodes scholars, most ever

10 African-Americans named Rhodes scholars, most ever

Associated PressThe latest group of U.S. Rhodes scholars includes 10 African-Americans — the most ever in a single Rhodes class — as well as a transgender man and four students from colleges that had never had received the honor before. The Rhodes Tr...
Published: 11/19/17

Class notes

School Calendar• Nov. 27: School resumes after Thanksgiving break• Dec. 22: End of second grading quarter.• Dec. 23-Jan. 7: Winter Break.• Jan. 8: Teacher planning day. No school for students.Arts/Music/TheaterCenter for the Arts at River Ridge Middl...
Updated: 2 hours ago
Pasco’s 2018 Outstanding Senior hails from River Ridge High

Pasco’s 2018 Outstanding Senior hails from River Ridge High

River Ridge High School senior Connor Beckman has been named Pasco County’s 2018 Outstanding Senior.Commander of the school’s Air Force JROTC program, Beckman is also an Eagle Scout mentor, National Honor Society president and swim team captain.Beckm...
Updated: 2 hours ago
Pinellas education news: District honors support employees, Discovery Nights resume, and more

Pinellas education news: District honors support employees, Discovery Nights resume, and more

Pinellas names top support employeesFive finalists have emerged from 120 nominees to be the 2017-18 Support Employee of the Year in the Pinellas County school system. The finalists were chosen in five categories. Debra Canning, 21st Century iClass Li...
Updated: 3 hours ago