TAMPA — Gaps exist in the Hillsborough County school district's procedures to keep special-education students safe, a work group said Friday.
Training is inconsistent, bus drivers and aides do not always know about children's medical conditions, and it's hard to find qualified applicants at the pay rates offered to teachers and aides.
"We have great ESE teachers and we have great ESE paraprofessionals," said Jeff Eakins, the district's general director for federal programs, who addressed the Superintendent's Advisory Council for the Education of Students with Disabilities.
"But we have 250 sites and if there is guidance given at one site, we want to make sure there is guidance given at every site."
The council, which includes parents, staff and representatives of community agencies, has been asked to give its input before a final report goes to Superintendent MaryEllen Elia on Dec. 10.
"We're approaching this with a real sense of urgency," Elia said at Friday's meeting.
Elia established the work group in response to two deaths of special-needs students, one at school and the other after suffering respiratory distress on a school bus.
No disciplinary action was taken against the bus driver and aide, who did not dial 911 as 7-year-old Isabella Herrera struggled to breathe.
The public and some School Board members did not know about the January incident until the family sued in November. Since then, drivers and aides have been reminded to call 911 if they feel the situation warrants it.
An investigation is under way in the case of Jennifer Caballero, who drowned in a retention pond after walking away from a gym class at Rodgers Middle School in Riverview on Oct. 22.
Her death raised questions about the training given ESE aides: Five were supposed to be watching Jenny's class when Jenny disappeared. Some, when questioned by Hillsborough sheriff's deputies, said they were unfamiliar with the school's emergency protocols.
The study group found that although aides are offered training and get informal training from their supervising teachers, that system lacks consistency. "There is a need to mandate a formal district level training course for their positions," the report said.
In addition, it said, emergency procedures should specifically address students who run away.
The issue is not just with aides, the report said. "There is a need to implement a verification process documenting that emergency procedure training has occurred for all newly hired employees prior to the beginning of the assignment."
Citing a dramatic increase in the last six years in the number of medically fragile students, the group called on the district "to better recruit and incentivize employees." It suggested bonus pay for those who work with medically fragile students.
No estimate was given as to how much that would cost. The district is receiving $39 million in federal funds this year to serve 29,000 special-needs students. But officials said the federal money covers only some of the cost in personnel, equipment and services.
Some advisory council members wanted the study to tackle broader issues.
"It sounds like a lot of communication, but I didn't hear a lot about communication with parents," said parent Janet Atkinson.
Advocate Claudia Roberts, who has a son with autism, said, "we end up where ESE is a place and not a service. I would like to see our kids as valued members of the school community and I don't see that occurring."
Elia encouraged members to write candidly in the comments they are sharing with the work group.
"There's nothing you can give us that doesn't have an important use in this process," she said.
Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or firstname.lastname@example.org.