TAMPA — Terry Kemple waited until the night before the election to unload on the Hillsborough County school district for its treatment of special-needs students.
But his statement, when he released it, did not hold back.
"As a father, my heart and my prayers go out to the families of Bella Herrera and Jennifer Caballero, the special needs students who have died in tragic accidents that have taken place in the Hillsborough County School District this year," wrote Kemple, who is running for the countywide District 7 School Board seat against longtime incumbent Carol Kurdell.
"Parents and children in Hillsborough County deserve better! A culture of active accountability will help prevent tragedies like this in the future."
Bella died in January, after suffering respiratory distress on a school bus leaving Sessums Elementary School. A Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office report shows that neither the driver nor the aide called 911. Instead, they tried to notify their supervisors and a dispatch operator of the crisis, in accordance with what the district described as its protocol. District officials, when asked last week for a written report about the incident, said they were not aware of any.
Bella's family is suing the district in federal court.
Jennifer drowned last month in a retention pond behind Rodgers Middle School after walking away from a physical education class. The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office is investigating, and after that the district will conduct its own inquiry.
Kurdell, hearing about Kemple's statement, said, "How do I respond? I am always disappointed when an opportunist uses the deaths of children to advance someone's candidacy. I don't care who you are. It is inappropriate."
In recent days several board members have said they want to take a closer look at the exceptional student education department, which serves 29,000 students and has undergone other troubling incidents this year as well.
Count her among those members, Kurdell said.
"Always, when you have a tragedy, you have to look at everything that happened," she said, "Look at the facts, and see if changes have to occur. We might have to change things to keep children safe, that's the bottom line."
Board workshops are scheduled Thursday morning and afternoon to discuss lacrosse, Head Start and other issues. While special education is not listed on any agenda, members are likely to ask questions about staff training, the practice of not calling 911, and other related topics.