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  1. Education

Hillsborough School Board member slams reaction of superintendent, chairwoman to students' deaths

TAMPA — On a day when a sheriff's investigation into the death of a student with Down syndrome was released, Hillsborough County School Board member Susan Valdes unleashed scathing words on the superintendent and chairwoman.

She accused board Chairwoman Candy Olson of making "callous" and "insensitive" remarks about another special-needs child who died earlier this year. And she accused superintendent MaryEllen Elia of not knowing the meaning of being proactive.

It infuriated her that nine months had passed between the death of Isabella Herrera — who suffered respiratory distress on a school bus — and the public learning about it from a lawsuit.

She suggested the tragedies might have been avoided if board members had updated district procedures and listened to parents who complain to them.

"I feel that we dismiss the comments made by the citizens," she said. "Sometimes these comments can be used as warning signs."

One parent of a special-needs student has repeatedly told the board workers did not call 911 when her daughter was injured. One of those appearances came shortly after Isabella's death, another situation in which staff apparently did not call 911.

"We responded strongly as a board," Valdes said. "Yet, at this meeting we didn't know that the other situation had occurred in January."

(Olson acknowledged in an interview earlier this month that she had known about the death.)

But Valdes said the episode made it problematic when Elia reassured parents of Jennifer Caballero, who drowned at Rodgers Middle in October, "that she will do everything she can to make sure this doesn't happen."

Valdes took issue with Elia's recent statement that the district is proactive about safety. After reading a dictionary definition of the word, Valdes pointed out that the district has dragged its feet.

"How many procedures do we have that our employees follow that are maybe 10, 15, 20 or 30 years old? I don't know. I really don't know," she said.

Elia left near the start of Valdes' 12-minute speech and didn't return until it was almost over.

Valdes took Olson to task for remarks she made when asked if she was bothered that no school report existed on Isabella's death.

Olson had said at the time: "Do you want to spend your time doing reports or doing your job?" She said Isabella died in the hospital, and that to say she died on the bus was "a lot of malarkey."

On Tuesday, Olson declined to revisit those remarks. "I don't think there is anyone sitting here who is anything but heartbroken for these families," she said.