TAMPA — Two years after a disabled child stopped breathing on a Hillsborough County school bus, questions remain about who should have known about her death and whether meaningful improvements have followed.
The school district's attorney says that the system is safer and that it settled a lawsuit by the family of Isabella Herrera because of inflammatory statements from board members who suggested it is not.
But Lisa Herrera, the mother who frantically called 911 when she arrived to find her 7-year-old daughter still in her wheelchair, said progress is painfully slow.
"We do not feel there has been justice for Bella," she told the School Board on Tuesday.
Transportation staff should attend the educational plan meetings for disabled children, she said. Buses should have defibrillators. Workers should know CPR.
"These are all simple solutions, all of which would have saved Bella's life," she said.
The Herreras sued on Nov. 1, 2012, nine months after Isabella died. A student with a neuromuscular disorder, Isabella had trouble holding her head up. Her parents said she was not seated properly on a bus from Sessums Elementary School in Riverview.
When Isabella couldn't breathe, the driver and aide tried to call a supervisor on the radio, as was the protocol. They had trouble getting through and, although a video from aboard the bus shows they had a cellphone, they did not call 911.
Instead, they called Lisa Herrera, who then called 911 when she arrived at the scene. She estimated her daughter was without oxygen at least 30 minutes. Isabella was pronounced dead the next day at a hospital.
It was the first of two exceptional student education deaths that year. On Oct. 22, Jennifer Caballero, who had Down syndrome, drowned in a pond behind Rodgers Middle School.
Although the Herreras could have sued in state court, where the award would be limited to $200,000, they attempted a federal civil rights suit that has no such limit. To win, they would have to prove widespread mistreatment of ESE students amounting to deliberate indifference.
Their lawyer, Dan Cotter, called their decision courageous.
But Tom Gonzalez, an attorney for the school district, said the Herreras could find only four examples, spanning a decade, of wrongdoing. "They were not sins of the heart," he said.
As he argued in court pleadings, Gonzalez insisted Tuesday that the case did not qualify as a federal discrimination lawsuit. And he said improvements have been made. Employees are now told they can call 911. Systems are being implemented to make sure drivers know about their students' disabilities.
Critics, including dozens of bus drivers who have spoken out recently, say gaps still remain, from poorly trained drivers to equipment that doesn't work.
Some board members, meanwhile, continue to ask why they were not informed of Isabella's death before the suit was filed. Only Candy Olson, the board chair at the time, said she knew.
Member April Griffin said she learned, when giving a deposition, that the Herreras offered to mediate the case soon after Isabella died. Still, board members were not told.
The depositions were expected to be released today.
As Lisa Herrera sat in the audience, board members expressed their sympathies, one by one. "All of us who love children feel, to some degree, at some level, your loss," said Doretha Edgecomb.
Susan Valdes, who has been critical of the lack of disclosure, told superintendent MaryEllen Elia, "Madam superintendent, I don't know how you do it."
While the court case is all but concluded, the issue of ESE transportation is not. At focus groups and community meetings, drivers have described inadequate equipment, staff changes that leave the children without well-trained workers and widespread morale problems.
Board Chairwoman Carol Kurdell said Tuesday that the district should consider privatizing transportation. Griffin said it was worth considering, but cautioned against alarming the employees who are speaking out.
Marlene Sokol can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3356.