The Hillsborough School Board is poised today to approve an $800,000 settlement with the family of a 7-year-old disabled student who died after suffering respiratory failure on a school bus. No amount of money can replace a child's life. But the settlement represents an acknowledgement by the school district that it has serious problems in its transportation department that need immediate attention.
Isabella Herrera, a Riverview girl who had a neuromuscular condition, died in January 2012 after going into respiratory distress on a school bus. Following district policy, neither the bus driver nor the aide on the bus called 911 when they noticed the girl struggling to breathe. They called transportation dispatchers, whom they had trouble reaching. They also phoned Herrera's mother, who arrived at the bus and called 911, more than eight minutes after the incident began. Herrera was unresponsive by the time she reached the hospital and died the next day.
The child's death sparked a series of internal reviews. The district increased training for its employees and clarified its policy that banned bus drivers and attendants from calling 911. The Herrera family brought a federal civil rights lawsuit against the district, claiming the case went beyond negligence and was evidence of systemic problems. In a recent meeting, board members essentially signaled their agreement by saying they expect to approve a settlement with the family in a formal vote today.
The Herrera case is about more than a single child. The transportation department has broader issues that continue to go unchecked and could affect any of the 94,000 students it buses each day. Its fleet is aging and badly in need of replacement. It struggles to hire and retain competent drivers and aides, partly because of low pay. And some drivers say that when they speak up about problems, they risk punishment by superiors.
An independent consultant is reviewing the transportation department's policies and procedures while district officials conduct a parallel investigation into the complaints of four veteran transportation trainers. District officials must take seriously the findings of the consultant's report. If the report is found lacking, they must order a more thorough review. They also must give more than lip service to training efforts and raise the pay of drivers and aides, particularly those who deal with the district's exploding population of exceptional students. The district should foster an environment where whistle-blowers feel comfortable sharing their concerns. And every student and parent should be able to have confidence that the district takes seriously the job of providing safe transport for students.