Hillsborough County school officials should take seriously the complaints raised by longtime staffers in its transportation department. The allegations call into question whether the district has learned anything from the deaths of two special needs students in 2012. The district should continue its internal investigation of the complaints and provide a full accounting of its findings to the public. Full transparency will provide insight into a responsible path forward.
In January, four Hillsborough transportation training specialists signed and sent a memo to School Board members that outlined 15 concerns, ranging from bus driver retention to bus cleanliness. Among the most serious charges is that bus drivers are unaware of the medical conditions of special needs students, leaving drivers unprepared to act during emergencies. The memo also alleged that trainers have been told to overlook safety issues regarding special needs students rather than report or document them.
The allegations come after two high-profile deaths of special needs students in the district's care. In January 2012, 7-year-old Isabella Herrera died after she had a medical emergency on a school bus and the driver and bus attendant followed district procedure and did not call 911. Ten months later, Jennifer Caballero drowned in a pond after she wandered away from her class at Rodgers Middle School. In the wake of the deaths, the district vowed to pay closer attention to special needs students and issued new procedures for its drivers.
But the training specialists' complaints indicate much remains to be done. The trainers, who have a combined 90 years of experience in transportation, courageously stood up to protect Hillsborough students. Superintendent MaryEllen Elia said last week that an internal investigation is underway. Unsatisfied, some School Board members called for an independent review. At this point, an outside investigator is unnecessary. The district should move quickly to investigate the allegations and share the results with the public. If the findings seem improbable or incomplete, then an outside investigator can be brought in.
In the meantime, bus drivers must adhere to the policies the district has set in place. When they see co-workers fall short, whistle-blowers should speak up. The safety of our most vulnerable children is at stake.