Saturday, February 24, 2018
Education

Hillsborough school officials to discuss safety plan

TAMPA — Hillsborough County school officials are paying close attention to wheelchair lifts on buses and fence heights around ponds.

They're developing emergency checklists and hiring workers to keep track of medically fragile students who ride the bus.

And they're taking a hard look at the jobs of exceptional student education aides and attendants.

A detailed timeline lists dozens of steps the district is taking to improve safety in ESE. It was made public on Tuesday in preparation for a School Board workshop at 4 p.m. on Thursday.

"I am looking forward to having a conversation about our own children's safety," board chairwoman April Griffin said on Monday.

Referring to MaryEllen Elia's efforts to beef up school security after the Sandy Hook shootings, she said, "Our superintendent said our world changed on Dec. 14. I don't disagree, but I would say our world changed on Jan. 26, with Isabella's death, and on Oct. 22, with Jenny Caballero's death."

Isabella Herrera, who had a neuromuscular disorder, died a day after she suffered respiratory distress while on a school bus. Neither the driver, nor the aide, called 911. Her parents have sued in federal court.

Jenny, who had Down syndrome, drowned in a pond behind Rodgers Middle School after wandering away from a physical education class.

While the two deaths occurred nine months apart, the public learned of both within a two-week period in late October.

Soon after, Elia convened a work group to study ESE safety and come up with a plan of improvement. The group, which sought input from employees, a parent advisory council and the Council of the Great City Schools, has been at work ever since.

The report included detailed timetables for input, planning, hiring, training and implementation.

Some of the recommended improvements — including mandatory training for all ESE aides — will not be fully implemented until August.

Others will require weeks or months of input before they can begin. Among them: Coming up with incentives, such as bonuses, for aides who work with high-need students.

Preliminary estimates of what it would cost to train the district's ESE teachers, aides and bus personnel are $221,000 in paid time and as much as $250,000 to purchase the videos. Some emergency training already has been given to bus drivers and bus aides.

Speaking earlier this week, board members said they have high expectations for Thursday's session and the work that will follow.

"I think the most important thing that MaryEllen Elia and the board can do is to hire a new director of ESE who has academic credentials in ESE and lots of professional experience in ESE, and the compassion for families and students from day one," said member Stacy White.

The last general manager was not an ESE specialist, and took a lateral transfer in December. "This person will need to work with these families, keep everyone in the loop, and we will need to do what we can do to make this ESE department a model," White said. "We are talking about a new culture."

One of the group's early recommendations was to implement a standard system of reporting medical incidents, such as Isabella's. The district had no such report on file about Isabella, and some board members reacted angrily to the fact that they were not informed.

Already, that situation has changed.

Board members received numerous emails and phone calls on Jan. 23, when Cypress Creek Elementary School student Jose Pinto-Rosa got sick at lunchtime and was rushed to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

The Hillsborough Medical Examiner is trying to determine the cause of Jose's illness.

"I would hope that there will be an investigation and that we will see a comprehensive report from the superintendent, considering the severity of the issue," Griffin said.

While glad she is being kept informed, Griffin said the district is sending out a lot of information, and some of the reports are duplicates. "We need to get a handle on how this is going to work," she said.

White said he doesn't mind receiving a lot of information, even though some incidents are as simple as a child bumping his head or a parent climbing a fence at dismissal time.

"The more, the better, and then it's really up to each individual board member to decide how deeply we want to dig into that information," he said.

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

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