Saturday, April 21, 2018
Education

Hillsborough school officials produced no report after student's death

TAMPA — In the aftermath of Isabella Herrera's fatal January ride on a school bus, Hillsborough County Public Schools officials reviewed video of those excruciating minutes.

They saw how an aide sprang to action after 7-year-old Bella, as she was called, began choking. A neuromuscular disorder made it hard for Bella to hold her head up. In a federal lawsuit filed this week, her parents contend district workers did not properly position her wheelchair.

Neither the driver nor the aide called 911, a report by the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office confirmed. Instead, driver Tonia Dole-Pizarro used a phone to call a supervisor and request emergency help after she had trouble using a radio to call a dispatcher. The aide, Joanna Hamilton, told deputies she made two calls to Bella's mother.

The School District appears not to have prepared a written report on any of this. Spokesman Stephen Hegarty said no report exists in the Office of Professional Standards, which would have investigated if there were any reason to discipline the two employees.

And he said he did not know of any other reports, aside from the one from the Sheriff's Office.

As to why there were no repercussions for not calling 911, Hegarty said that is not how employees are supposed to respond to bus emergencies.

Instead, they are instructed to radio the dispatcher, using the phrase "red alert." The dispatch workers call for help while the driver and aide attend to the students on the bus. "The dispatcher knows where you are and what the situation is," Hegarty said.

By the time help arrived — some 15 minutes after Bella went into distress — the driver and aide were trying to revive her. Bella was rushed to Brandon Regional Hospital and then St. Joseph's Children's Hospital, where doctors said she was nonresponsive and unable to breathe on her own.

She was pronounced dead the following day.

A crisis team helped break the news to families at Sessums Elementary School, where Bella was in the second grade. Reactions were mixed on the School Board. Some members recalled the incident and some did not.

Member Susan Valdes said she would have liked to see documentation from the district. "In my opinion, yes." Back when she managed a medical clinic, Valdes said she learned, "if you didn't document it, you didn't do it. Part of your job is doing a report."

Outgoing Chairwoman Candy Olson did not find fault with the lack of a report. "Do you want to spend your time doing reports or doing your job?" she asked.

Olson said it was clear, from the video the Herrera family distributed at a news conference after the lawsuit was filed, how distressed everyone was as Bella struggled to breathe. "They were devastated," Olson said.

She did not mean to be dismissive, she said. "I can't ever be satisfied when a child dies."

But she added, "A child died the next day in a hospital. To say she died on the bus is a lot of malarkey."

Bella's parents, in their lawsuit, say their daughter died because of a pattern of wrongdoing that included a lack of staff training in how to position Bella and their failure to call 911.

The district's Exceptional Student Education Department has been rocked by several troubling incidents, including a temporary teacher accused of grinding a shoe in a child's face and a high school teacher who was shown asleep in class in a televised video.

Last month 11-year-old Jennifer Caballero, who had Down syndrome, drowned in a pond behind Rodgers Middle School after walking away from physical education class. The Sheriff's Office is investigating and the School District will begin its own inquiry afterward.

Valdes said she wants the board to discuss issues involving special needs students, perhaps at a business meeting called Thursday to consider a planned high school lacrosse program.

Staff writer Jessica Vander Velde contributed to this report. Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected]

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