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Hillsborough school district group is examining special ed safety following student deaths

TAMPA — Hillsborough County school bus drivers are free to decide whether to call 911 in case of an emergency, superintendent MaryEllen Elia said Thursday.

In addition, Elia said, a work group headed by deputy superintendent Ken Otero is exploring safety issues that affect exceptional-student education.

These actions follow the deaths of two special-needs children. Elia has asked for the work group's findings within 10 days.

"If there is something that needs to be changed, updated or clarified, then we will change, update and clarify it," she said.

"We're not going to sit back and hope that nothing else happens. We are being proactive, we have been proactive and we will continue to do that."

Isabella "Bella" Herrera died in January, a day after suffering respiratory distress on a school bus coming home from Sessums Elementary School in Riverview. Her parents are suing in federal court.

Bella had a neuromuscular disorder and trouble holding her head up. She started choking, and neither the aide nor the driver called 911. Instead, they tried to have a dispatch operator or transportation supervisor call 911, which the district described as standard policy.

Help came too late and Bella was unresponsive when she arrived at Brandon Regional Hospital.

District officials said drivers have never been prohibited from calling 911 in an emergency, and Elia's move Thursday was meant to clarify that.

Last month, 11-year-old Jennifer Caballero, who had Down syndrome, drowned in a pond behind Rodgers Middle School after walking away from a physical education class. She was supposed to be supervised by ESE aides.

Elia said she and her staff are awaiting the results of a Hillsborough sheriff's investigation into Jennifer's death. Once it is concluded, the district will conduct its own investigation.

"The recent incidents, though they're unrelated, are very troubling (not only) to the board but clearly to myself and all of the staff across this district who are constantly working very hard to make a great experience for the students, all students," she said.

The work group is looking at a variety of issues, Elia said. "That includes staffing models, training, supervision, emergency calls, the height of fences, the activity that we have in our schools in transferring students from one part of the school to another part. There is just a whole myriad of things that we are looking at, virtually everything."

Elia's remarks came during the final minutes of a three-hour workshop about Head Start, transit and lacrosse. Member April Griffin pushed to add the ESE issue to the agenda.

She said she was pleased with the directive to bus drivers.

"It makes sure employees are not afraid to use their good judgment in a situation where there is an emergency," she said.

The attorney for Bella Herrera's family agreed but pointed out that the 911 issue is just one of several in the civil rights suit.

"Although the family supports this long-overdue policy change, they want to make clear that there still exist many questions to be answered by the School Board and school district," Steven Maher said.

"Changes must also be made in how the board and district maintains and protects the safety of special needs students in the Hillsborough County schools."

The Hillsborough policy on radio calls is not unique.

The Pinellas school district asks drivers to contact a dispatch operator over the radio if a student is ill or injured. In an emergency, the driver and operator switch to a dedicated channel for uninterrupted communication.

Drivers are forbidden from speaking on cellphones while the bus is moving. But they can park the bus and then use a phone to call 911 if necessary, said spokeswoman Melanie Marquez.

Bella's bus sat parked for about eight minutes before her mom got on and called 911.

With limited time for discussion Thursday, some board members called for more than a clarification of 911 use.

Susan Valdes said the problem is symptomatic of a district that has not updated procedures to correspond to policy changes.

"We must look at this in a completely different manner, in a holistic way that affects all of our departments if you will, beginning from human resources to transportation and to what else happens out there," she said.

Stacy White, who has argued for budget transparency, said he wants to track funding for special-needs children, an issue also covered in the Herrera lawsuit.

White said he will watch closely the work group's study and the inquiry over Jennifer's drowning. "My expectation is that those investigations will include both frontline employees and members of the ESE leadership team," he said.

"I'm clearly going to give staff a chance here. But if I suspect a lack of objectivity, I have no issue whatsoever with an external investigation. … There better not be a culture of dismissiveness in our ESE department."

Later in the day, a small protest group gathered outside district headquarters.

Howard Scott of Ruskin was there with his two special-needs sons: Larry, 19, and George, 17. He said he has trouble getting George the speech therapy he needs at East Bay High School. As for Larry's education, he said, "it's day care, that's all it is."

Katharine Bower, whose son was a friend of Bella's, said her death should be a wakeup call for all parents.

"It's scary," she said. "My kids aren't special-needs, but they ride the bus. To me, it's common sense that anyone who works in the school district should know CPR."

The pastor of Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church, Clark Edwards, said he was concerned that Hillsborough officials are studying their own safety issues.

"I'm sure there are other school districts that deal with these issues," he said. "Why are they using an inhouse group to investigate themselves? There needs to be a broader reach."

Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or sokol@tampabay.com.

Hillsborough school district group is examining special ed safety following student deaths 11/08/12 [Last modified: Friday, November 9, 2012 12:13am]

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