TAMPA — The number of medically fragile children who ride the school bus in Hillsborough County has grown dramatically, and so have challenges in getting them to and from school safely.
Six years ago, an estimated 64 school bus riders had "red alert" status, meaning staff had to be trained in their medical conditions and how to respond in an emergency. Now there are 489, the Hillsborough County School Board was told Tuesday.
Drivers are scarce and, ever since the district suffered two student deaths in 2012, exceptional student education has been under scrutiny.
"There's anxiety that comes with this," said deputy superintendent Jeff Eakins, who led an ESE task force after the two deaths, including focus groups. "When you're talking about working with the most medically fragile child, that's something that came out continually."
At a board workshop Tuesday, officials gave a detailed account of improvements they have made including streamlined paperwork and a database of children with high medical needs. Drivers are trained individually and in groups, and have access to supervisors afterward.
"I'm on the phone with drivers and riders early in the morning, late in the afternoon, whenever the need arises," said Rene Rybicki, a district resource teacher in ESE.
But questions remain about cost, the workforce and the lingering issue of whether workers can call 911 in an emergency.
Attorneys for Isabella Herrera, one of the children who died in 2012, say one factor was an antiquated directive that staff should call dispatch on the radio instead of using their phones to call 911.
That year, Isabella, 7, was riding home on a bus from Sessums Elementary School in Riverview, strapped in her wheelchair, when she had a respiratory attack.
A bus video shows that instead of calling 911, the driver and aide tried to call a dispatch operator on the radio. They had trouble getting through and used a cellphone to call Lisa Herrera, her mother. Isabella was pronounced dead the next day at a hospital.
Superintendent MaryEllen Elia clarified the rule after the public learned of Isabella's death, saying employees can use their best judgment and are not forbidden from calling 911.
But board member April Griffin said she was told recently of a school that tells staff to call the office in case of illness or injury. Elia said she will look into it.
Member Susan Valdes, reading a form the bus drivers get, asked that the last line be rewritten to have them call 911 and dispatch, instead of the reverse order.
District officials point out that not all employees have cellphones; and in some cases, the office should be notified so rescue workers can be directed to the right location. Member Cindy Stuart asked for an accounting of what the district has spent on the improvements. And she pointed out that with a shortage of bus drivers, special-needs students are sometimes driven by substitutes.
Officials were not certain what's causing the increase in "red-alert" students on the buses. Part of it might stem from a higher survival rate of babies with disabilities, said ESE general director Maryann Parks. There's also a trend toward more inclusion in mainstream classes, which results in students traveling to more schools. The district is conducting several studies and investigations related to its transportation department, which serves 94,000 students each day.
One investigation concerns allegations by four trainers who described continuing problems on the ESE buses. A consultant is assessing the department as it prepares to purchase new buses.
Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected]