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Hillsborough district interviews with four transportation trainers

Published Apr. 7, 2014

Despite the label, the transcript of interviews with four Hillsborough transportation trainers is a public record, and it was made available to the Tampa Bay Times on Friday. We've requested a copy of the full 200 pages. At the end of this post, there's an explanation from the district for what you see in the picture.

In the meantime, here is some of what the trainers said, elaborating on complaints they made in a Jan. 29 memo.

The school district has been looking into their complaints, one by one. Some questions have already been answered. Some are being investigated by the Office of Professional Standards. Superintendent MaryEllen Elia has promised a full report when the process is complete. She also contemplates a broader action plan that will consider not only the trainers' issues, but also the work of the district's transportation consultant.

Deputy superintendent Cathy Valdes said recently that there has been only one verifiedcase that workers were told not to document mistakes made on the exceptional student education buses. That case involved a special-needs student at the Lopez Exceptional Center. In the second, at Caminiti Exceptional Center, interviews show that when the trainers spotted a mistake, they were told, "we're not here for that."

In general, they said the system suffered a setback in 2008, when transportation was re-organized and ESE route coordinators no longer worked directly with the drivers. All four were offered whistleblower protection, meaning they should not suffer retaliation for having come forward.

Here is some of what they said on Feb. 18:

Twila Tillman:

"They're rushing me through the training. Rushing me through it. We had 18 new drivers. We had an hour to do it in. You cannot possibly do a hands-on to teach -- and I did get a school bus and had them to bring it in here where I can show the whole class at one time how to do a safety vest where it's kind of hard to do that with that many people on a bus...

"And, you know, now we'll get two buses or we'll get a bus that's got wheelchairs up front, wheelchairs in the back, and we'll split the class and take them. But we'll show them, we'll demonstrate how to secure a wheelchair with a student and then we'll have you, 'Now, you come and show us now,' and they don't -- they can't comprehend. It's rushing them through. It's too much at one time. The information that we have to teach them from DOE, we cannot leave anything out."

The problems she described are in the initial training.

"The ongoing training is good," she said. "But the driver and attendant together has got to hear the same thing as a pair."

When asked if she has reported this problem in the past, she said, "over and over."

She's also troubled by new reporting procedures that drivers follow when they have a question or problem. They are asked to fill out a form and give it to a supervisor, who forwards it to a district resource teacher, who sends it to a routing and planning manager, who assigns it to someone else. "Really? That's not going to work," Tillman said.

"I want to see the ESE program back the way it was or better, and I think we're falling down the steps."

Corie Holmes:

Holmes described, in detail, the day he, trainer Juanita Juarez and safety supervisor Rebecca Stringfield came upon a medically needy child at Lopez who was seated improperly on an ESE bus.

He said he told Stringfield, "well, I'll write an email." She reportedly told him, "You're not going to document any of that." As Holmes tells the story, Stringfieldwas so upset, she was "speeding and running off the road in the company car." She told him not to create documents because "you have to worry about the media."

Juanita Juarez:

Describing the same incident at Lopez, she said, "And I saw that child. I mean, his head was falling all the way down to his legs... So I talked to the bus driver. We talked to the attendant there. And we asked them, we said, 'have y'all talked to somebody about this? It doesn't look safe.' And she looked at Corie and she looked at me, and she said, 'I have been dealing with this. The school knows about it, and I already talked to my supervisor about it, but that's how they want me to bring him in.'"

She confirmed that when Holmes said he was going to write an email, "Becky [Stringfield] told Corie, 'You're not. You're not going to document nothing that we saw here. You're not."

Describing the incident at Caminiti, in which a driver did not know if he had a medically needy student, she said Stringfield did not say they couldn't document the problem. Instead, she, "'we're not here for this. We're not here for you to talk to nobody. We're here for securements,'" meaning the straps that hold down the wheelchairs.

John Saffold:

Like the others, he said the system was better before the reorganization.

"When they would get ESE students or whatever, before they give them to the driver, if they have medical issues or whatever they needed to know, they came in and went over it with them, in-serviced them, whatever it took before the student was placed on a bus. Now we have drivers with ESE students that don't even know what their problem is, some of them, and they're mixed in with the regular ed students. And nobody told them. All they know is it's just another student."

The Times placed a call to Rebecca Stringfield but did not receive a response.

Now for that explanation from district spokesman Stephen Hegarty:

"When we make a copy of something that is many, many pages, we don't want to make multiple copies."

Additionally, he said, "this is one piece of a larger upcoming report that will provide a lot more information. This document only includes unsubstantiated statements and opinions from these four people. I would anticipate that there will be widespread interest in the full report whenever that is complete, and I'm guessing it will be copied and distributed."

We hope to post it as well.