TAMPA — Mandatory training for special education aides soon will be a reality in Hillsborough County Public Schools, an effort prompted by the deaths last year of two students.
"We are moving," said Jeff Eakins, who heads a school district task force on exceptional student education safety. "Everyone is engaged to make sure that this is done correctly."
Under a plan Eakins described Friday, no employee will be cleared for hire without first viewing a safety video that is now under production.
That includes anyone who drives a bus, serves lunch or works with children at the district's after-school childcare program. A version of the video will be made available to parents as well.
In addition, every ESE aide and every teacher who works with ESE aides will be required to attend a three-hour annual training session. The employees will be paid for their time. The courses will be offered in multiple locations, on Saturdays or evenings and even online, to avoid having to pull staff out of the classrooms.
Beyond that first course, the district will offer optional courses in topics such as behavior management, inclusion, medical issues and autism.
The new training regimen is scheduled to begin in August.
Eakins, the district's general director for federal programs, outlined the program to the Superintendent's Advisory Council for the Education of Students with Disabilities. The council was formed in the aftermath of a lawsuit filed 19 years ago concerning speech therapy for a child with Down syndrome.
The group also has been consulted to help with reforms that have followed two student deaths last year. One, the drowning of middle school student Jennifer Caballero, revealed that ESE aides have opportunities to attend training, but much of it is voluntary.
Pay for ESE aides has been another issue. An online survey by the district showed many parents and teachers are concerned about the low pay rate for aides, who care for children who might be medically fragile, unable to speak, or both.
While the school district contends its pay range of $8.42 to $15.55 an hour is about average for the state, a Tampa Bay Times analysis showed most aides are at the lower end of that range, and on average they are among the lowest paid in the state. Many are classified as temporary employees who work without benefits.
Eakins said the district cannot raise pay without first going through the collective bargaining process. But the task force favors measures that would increase earnings, including higher pay for aides who receive more training.
He said he hopes that, through that process, the district can identify aides who have the potential to become teachers. That way, "we are also starting to solve another issue," he said, referring to the shortage of qualified ESE teachers.
The ESE project, which was under way when the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings happened in December, has been expanded to include schoolwide safety issues.
In addition to the specialized ESE training, the district is exploring the use of short, situational videos to initiate safety discussions at staff meetings.
As another form of ongoing training, a supervisor might show up at a teacher's classroom, ask what the teacher would do in a particular emergency, and then discuss his or her answer — without naming the teacher — at a future meeting.
Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected]