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Sue Carlton: When a child dies, answers are the least we can do

Government agencies are infamous for bureaucracy, for rules for rules' sake, for outdated procedures that seem to have no logical basis except maybe covering someone's behind should the worst occur.

In the Hillsborough County school district, it has.

In January, a second-grader in a wheelchair going home on a school bus could not breathe. She turned blue. She later died at the hospital. The terrible video that captured the scene on that bus showed the driver and an aide dealing with a child clearly in medical crisis. But they did not call 911.

The rules say they weren't supposed to. The rules say they were to go through a dispatcher first who could then call 911. The rules seem to defy common sense.

Also troubling: School officials apparently compiled no written report afterward.

Even though a child died.

Hillsborough school officials were already reeling from recent horror stories involving exceptional education students: a driver charged with pushing a girl off a school bus, a teacher accused of grinding a shoe in a 5-year-old's face. And last month, Jennifer Caballero, an 11-year-old with Down syndrome, walked away from a school gym and drowned in a pond.

Now, a federal lawsuit filed by the parents of Isabella Herrera is shining light on some questionable procedures.

The 7-year-old they called Bella had a neuromuscular disorder that made it hard for her to hold up her head. An aide on the bus that day realized she was having trouble breathing. Her parents would later say she wasn't properly positioned in her wheelchair to keep her head from falling forward.

In that excruciating video, neither the driver nor the aide called 911, even as the aide can be heard saying, "We need 911." Under the instructions given to bus drivers, the two adults who saw this child turning blue were not supposed to. They were supposed to contact a dispatcher who could send help. The logic as explained to me is that people on the scene can deal with the crisis at hand — though exactly how talking with a dispatcher instead of directly with 911 accomplishes this is a mystery to me.

School Board member April Griffin says the procedure was originally written in 1991, before practically everyone carried a cellphone.

The driver, who had trouble making the radio function to get a dispatcher, called a supervisor by phone. The aide called Bella's mother, who rushed to the bus. It is terrible to watch. Help arrived 15 minutes into the incident.

Does this 911 rule make sense to you, this extra layer when seconds count?

Another troubling detail: School officials apparently compiled no written report separate from the Sheriff's Office's report, no documented in-house review to make sure rules were followed or the rules even make sense, to see if this could have been handled better or even prevented. The question seems absurd: Shouldn't any school-related death of a student warrant a thorough written report afterward?

Some School Board members want answers. "There are 3-year-olds who have called 911 and saved lives," says Griffin.

Answers are the least we can do, because it's beyond bureaucracy. It's about rules that fly in the face of common sense and safety, and about a child who deserved better.

Sue Carlton: When a child dies, answers are the least we can do 11/06/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 7, 2012 2:25am]

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