The reforms proposed last week to improve the safety of special-needs students in the Hillsborough County schools are sensible and long overdue. It is incredible that they come only after the deaths of two students this year in cases that exposed an indefensible lack of training and common sense among those who care for this fragile population. District administrators should not waste any time filling the gaps in recruitment and training that are essential for improving campus safety. And the district's governing board needs to show a newfound commitment to hold the administration responsible for fixing a serious problem.
A work group commissioned by superintendent MaryEllen Elia recommended numerous changes in how the exceptional-student education department recruits, trains and oversees the staffing for the county's 29,000 special-needs students. For the most part, the recommendations address fundamental lapses in the current operation, from the lack of skills and training among the special-needs staff to poor equipment and communications that can create confusion and danger in times of crisis.
The proposals call for improved training for aides and bus drivers in a medical emergency or if a student walks away from supervision. It is not too much for the district to craft a medical checklist for special-needs students and protocols for searching for a missing child. The county could attract better talent by paying teachers' aides more, and it could get ahead of the curve by finding money for new technology and safety features, from lifesaving devices on buses to more secure fencing around ponds and other hazards on school campuses.
The real test will be whether the district follows through on instilling a new level of vigilance and accountability. Last week's announcement that the department director will be transferred to a new post offers the chance for a fresh start. The move needs to be about more than public relations. The deaths showed a lax attitude up and down the administrative ladder. Already, some board members are making noises that they do not want to "micromanage" the reform process. It's about time they did, given the state of the special-needs program that the district's own review exposed.
Elia should implement the new training immediately. New equipment like electronic record-sharing could make it easier for school staffers to track a student's medical needs. But nothing is more important than having a capable, confident staff. The board should realize that providing every student with a safe learning environment is its foremost responsibility, whatever that takes.