TAMPA — Special education in Hillsborough County needs better-trained aides, new technology on buses and improved communication about student health needs and medical incidents, according to a report released Monday.
The recommendations, which district officials will present to the School Board today, come in the wake of the deaths of two special needs students in January and October.
Superintendent MaryEllen Elia convened a study group to look at the district's Exceptional Student Education program. Led by senior staff, the project also involved the Council of the Great City Schools and a district ESE advisory council.
Ana Sanders, president of the local advisory council, said, "I think it is a step in the right direction. What the district needs is to open the lines of communication in all aspects. Nothing but good will come of that."
Some of the recommendations in the 88-page report touch on issues that came to light after the deaths of Isabella Herrera and Jennifer Caballero.
For example: The district could not produce any report of Isabella's death, which occurred a day after she suffered respiratory distress on a school bus. The study calls for a standard reporting procedure, much like one that exists for injuries.
"It is important that emergency medical incidents are reported in a timely manner to key district departments," the report says.
The Herrera family, in a lawsuit, alleges the driver and aide did not position Isabella's wheelchair correctly, making it hard for her to hold up her head. The report suggests new buses be equipped to make sure chairs are lifted and placed appropriately.
The report also lists procedures that would shore up the training of personnel on school buses. It directs staff to call 911 in an emergency when a cell phone is available. That did not happen in Isabella's case.
Instead of assigning year-round bus routes based on seniority, the report recommended looking for ways to give ESE students the same well-trained drivers all year.
Recommendations from the council call for substantial changes in the way the district keeps records and trains its workers.
User-friendly electronic training guides would exist in the schools so an employee who arrived midyear could be trained like the others. Training would need to be documented before a worker could start the job.
On buses, electronic data files — also user-friendly — would keep drivers up to date about children's medical needs. "Begin phasing out the district's reliance on paper-based health and medical records," the council suggested.
While there was no cost estimate, the group asked the district to explore federal funding.
The report discussed the jobs of ESE aides, who help with instruction; and attendants, who help with students' personal needs. It suggested both groups be considered paraprofessionals, with money spent on bonuses or professional development. These workers now earn as little as $11,500 a year.
The report calls for principals to take part in the training of aides. Some training would happen at the beginning of the school year, or on early release days. Elective teachers would collaborate with the ESE staff.
These issues came to light in the case of Jennifer, who had Down syndrome and wandered away from a crowded gym class staffed with six ESE aides. Five are suspended pending an investigation. The sixth was out of the room with another student when Jennifer disappeared and drowned.
There were even suggestions to tweak the district's organizational structure, which now has ESE under an assistant superintendant for curriculum and instruction.
From the local council there were 17 pages of comments, some specific to the staff recommendations and others about broader issues, including the district's attitudes about ESE.
Board member Stacy White said he is intently interested in the culture of the ESE department. "I am continuing to insist that staff look at the ESE department from the top down," he said.
Member Susan Valdes said she wishes some of the issues raised, such as pay and training, were considered months ago, as she suggested. But, she said, "we have to remain optimistic. Because these two babies' deaths can't be in vain."
Work is expected to continue at least until May. "Let me point out that we're not finished," Elia said. "This is an ongoing process to help us better meet the needs of our students."
Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected]