Thursday, January 18, 2018
Education

Supervisors sound alarm over Hillsborough school bus procedures

TAMPA — Bus drivers are stranded after hours with no one to call, the cleaning equipment doesn't work and employees were told not to document incidents that endangered children, according to a letter circulated at Tuesday's Hillsborough County School Board meeting.

The assertions are among more than a dozen complaints lodged by four training specialists in the school district's transportation department, many involving special-needs students.

The letter described two specific incidents — one in October, involving a special-needs child who was improperly strapped in; and another in August, in which a kindergartener was dropped off in one location while his mother was at another. An adult found the child, but for more than an hour neither his mother nor the school knew where he was.

Four employees signed the letter, which board member April Griffin distributed at the meeting.

The district was looking into some of these allegations and will now investigate the rest, said deputy superintendent Jeff Eakins.

"Everything like that, that somebody brings to our attention, we have to take seriously," Eakins said. "Some will be very quick, others will take a bit more time."

For example: The employees wrote that "drivers are evaluated on bus cleanliness, which includes the bus being washed. The bus wash has been down for almost two years."

Others are more broad. "We are losing drivers at an alarming rate due to morale and/or easily fixable logistics issues," the employees wrote.

Some of the items involve allegations of wrongdoing against specific drivers and trainers. One concerns a driver who, according to the letter, had trouble passing his driving test and, shortly after he was trained, hit a mailbox while driving a bus with students aboard. He's still driving.

Two of the writers describe incidents at exceptional centers in which they were told not to document problems.

More than 90,000 students ride the school buses in Hills­borough County every day, working for a department that employs 1,495 people.

The letter writers say some of the issues date to 2007, when the district began to reorganize its transportation department to save money during the recession.

The department came under criticism in 2012 after special-needs student Isabella Herrera stopped breathing while riding a bus home from Sessums Elementary School. Neither the driver nor the aide called 911. Isabella later died at a hospital, and her parents have a pending lawsuit in U.S. District Court.

The district responded to her death, and that of another special-needs student that year, with a work group that recommended dozens of improvements.

Two positions were created in the transportation department to coordinate "red alert" — the process of making sure staffers are aware of children's medical needs and know how to respond to emergencies. One of the jobs has been filled and the other is about to be filled, Eakins said.

There was also increased training for bus drivers and bus aides.

"We have definitely implemented more training and awareness," Eakins said.

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

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