Thursday, April 26, 2018
Editorials

Column: School district is prepared for medical emergencies

For the past year and a half I have kept my silence on a heart-wrenching case that has had a profound impact on the Hillsborough school district and on me. Though it has been frustrating to refrain from comment, it was a prudent decision; when an organization faces legal action, it is wise to avoid potentially making matters worse with comments that could be misunderstood.

Now that the case has been settled, I would like to explain how our district responded to the tragic death of Isabella Herrera, a medically fragile child who experienced a medical emergency on a school bus and died at the hospital the next day.

Any kind of injury, medical emergency, or death involving students or staff is terribly important and reverberates through our district. Despite our focus on health and safety, in a district with 203,000 students and 26,000 employees we must be prepared to deal with misfortune and tragedy.

In a typical month, our district experiences 85 to 100 requests for emergency transport due to a medical emergency. Each incident deserves immediate and appropriate attention, and several people in our school district have specific responsibilities. In this case, because Isabella died in the hospital and not at school or on a school bus, I would not have automatically been informed of it. We also have to be sensitive to privacy concerns and the wishes of the family.

At the school level, the teachers, principal, area leadership director and crisis team learned of Isabella's death and responded. They attended to the students and staff at the school who experienced a sense of loss when they learned of Isabella's passing. They also reached out to the family and provided what support they could. The principal, area leadership director and several teachers attended Isabella's funeral.

At the district level, the law firm that we have retained to handle claims against the district engaged with the attorney for the Herrera family. It is the responsibility of our attorneys to do the right thing by the family or individual who experienced the loss and to protect the rights of taxpayers.

The transportation department worked with law enforcement to determine what happened on the bus. Transportation officials ensured that all our standard safeguards were in place to preserve the rights of all the students on the bus, ensuring that our partners in law enforcement took the agreed-upon, appropriate steps in obtaining video from the bus camera.

After reviewing the bus video, law enforcement determined that no crime had been committed and reported that the hospital determined that the child died of "respiratory arrest weakness and neuromuscular syndrome." Our transportation department determined that the bus driver and attendant followed district protocol — as they understood it. The video revealed a connection failure; the bus radio was unable to get through to "dispatch" for several minutes. The bus driver repeatedly attempted to use the bus radio. It is appropriate and standard practice in Hillsborough and other school districts for bus drivers to use their radios to contact "dispatch," who then call 911. This is standard practice because cellphone coverage is faulty in some areas and not all bus drivers carry cellphones.

Despite testimony from several medical experts, there is no conclusive opinion as to whether different decisions on the bus would have yielded a different outcome. Regardless, our school district has worked to improve the reliability of our bus radio system and bolstered training for drivers, emphasizing that bus drivers can and should use their personal cellphones to call 911 when warranted. We have reached out for input from parents and professionals to see how we could improve services for special needs children — and have made multiple changes based on that input.

At the April 1 School Board meeting, at which the $800,000 settlement was finalized, Isabella's mother made an impassioned plea to board members and to the school district to keep her daughter in mind when we make decisions regarding the most vulnerable among our students. I know that board members have taken those words to heart — and I certainly have.

Our school district provides services to hundreds of precious children who have medical challenges that, at one time, would have prevented them from attending school with their peers. Just five years ago, 64 medically fragile children received specialized transportation in our district; today that number is 489. We readily accept the challenge, and the risk, as our teachers, support staff, and administrators work hard to provide the services to help the children live their lives to the fullest.

MaryEllen Elia is superintendent of Hillsborough County Schools. She wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

Comments
Editorial: St. Petersburg’s waste-to-energy to wastefulness project

Editorial: St. Petersburg’s waste-to-energy to wastefulness project

A St. Petersburg waste-to-energy plant now under construction has been billed for years as an environmentally friendly money saver. Now it looks more like a boondoggle, with the cost and mission changing on the fly. It’s yet another example of a city...
Published: 04/25/18
Updated: 04/26/18

‘Happy hour’ tax cuts may result in hangovers

Evidence is mounting that the $1.5 trillion tax-cut package enacted in December by congressional Republicans and President Donald Trump was a bad idea, not only for the long-run health of the economy but for the short-term political prospects of the ...
Published: 04/25/18
Editorial: As USFSP consolidation task force meets, openness and collaboration are key

Editorial: As USFSP consolidation task force meets, openness and collaboration are key

Writing a new law that phases out separate accreditation for the University of South Florida St. Petersburg and folds it back into the major research university was the easy part. The hard work starts today when a new consolidation task force holds i...
Published: 04/23/18
Updated: 04/25/18

Correction

CorrectionCircuit Judge John Stargel of Lakeland is a member of the Florida Constitution Revision Commission who voted against a proposed amendment that would have stopped write-in candidates from closing primary elections. An editorial Saturday inco...
Published: 04/23/18
Editorial: Pruitt sets new low for ethics at EPA

Editorial: Pruitt sets new low for ethics at EPA

Not too many people took then-candidate Donald Trump seriously when he famously campaigned to "drain the swamp" as president. But that shouldn’t give this administration a free pass to excuse the behavior of Scott Pruitt, the administrator of the Env...
Published: 04/22/18
Updated: 04/23/18
Editorial: Allegiant Air still has safety issues

Editorial: Allegiant Air still has safety issues

Allegiant Air’s safety record remains troubling, and the Federal Aviation Administration’s reluctance to talk about it is no more encouraging. Those are the key takeaways from a 60 Minutes report on the low-cost carrier’s high rate of mid-flight brea...
Published: 04/21/18

Editorial: Women’s work undervalued in bay area

Even a strong economy and low unemployment cannot overcome the persistent pay gap affecting full-time working women in Florida. A new report shows women in Florida earned 12.5 percent less on average than their male counterparts, and the disparities ...
Published: 04/21/18
Editorial: Florida’s death penalty fading away on its own

Editorial: Florida’s death penalty fading away on its own

Florida lawmakers may never take the death penalty off the books, but stronger forces are steadily eroding this inhumane, outdated tool of injustice. Court rulings, subsequent changes to law and waning public support have significantly suppressed the...
Published: 04/20/18
Updated: 04/24/18

Editorial: A missed chance for open primary elections

The Florida Constitution Revision Commission did a lot of things wrong this week by combining unrelated or unpalatable provisions into single amendments that will appear on the November ballot. It also wasted an opportunity to do one thing right. The...
Published: 04/20/18
Updated: 04/23/18
Editorial: New Cuba president is chance for new start

Editorial: New Cuba president is chance for new start

For all the symbolism, Raul Castro’s handoff of the Cuban presidency this week amounts to less than meets the eye even if his handpicked successor, the Communist Party functionary Miguel Diaz-Canel Bermudez, is the first person not named Castro to le...
Published: 04/20/18