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Hillsborough School Board members want to discuss issues surrounding student deaths

Published Nov. 8, 2012

TAMPA — Hillsborough County School Board members are asking questions and, in some cases, demanding changes following the deaths of two special needs students.

A protest is planned for 4 p.m. today outside the school district's headquarters, where board members will meet behind closed doors to discuss unspecified litigation.

A lawsuit in federal court, meanwhile, alleges the district violated the civil rights of Bella Herrera, a 7-year-old with a neuromuscular disorder who went into respiratory distress on a school bus in January and was unresponsive by the time she got to a hospital. She died the following day.

Issues include staff training, emergency policies and why some board members did not know about Bella's death until her parents sued last week.

"I was intending to wait until our next business meeting to have what I call a robust conversation," said board member Stacy White. "But clearly I will not be able to wait that long."

Board workshops are scheduled this morning, followed by a 5 p.m. meeting about the district's new lacrosse program.

Under the circumstances, White said, he doesn't mind postponing talks about lacrosse.

The Herrera lawsuit comes on the heels of the Oct. 22 drowning of Jennifer Caballero, an 11-year-old with Down syndrome who wandered from a Riverview middle school physical education class, then climbed a 4-foot fence and into a deep retention pond.

"Always, when you have a tragedy, you have to look at everything that happened," board member Carol Kurdell said Tuesday. "We might have to change things to keep children safe, that's the bottom line."

White wants to go farther. He plans to ask superintendent MaryEllen Elia to examine the entire exceptional student education (ESE) system and consider changes in its leadership.

"My expectation is that the superintendent will look at that department," he said. If not, "then I will explore the idea of an outside investigation."

Parents and school district critics are reacting strongly to the tragedies, which both appear to involve staff behavior.

Jennifer was under the supervision of ESE aides when she disappeared. Bella had an aide on the bus who tried to comfort her when she went into distress. Although the aide and driver had phones, they did not call 911. Instead, they called a supervisor and Bella's mother.

Some 15 minutes passed before rescue workers arrived and rushed her to a hospital. District spokesmen could find no documentation of the incident, other than a Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office report.

Board chairwoman Candy Olson, when asked last week about the absence of a report, pointed out that Bella died in a hospital, not on the bus.

That remark offended parents and activists who are posting to a Facebook page called OlsonandEliaMustResign. The page had 50 fans as of Wednesday afternoon. Another, Justice for Jennifer Caballero, had 439. The anti-Elia Facebook page is also being used to publicize the protest.

District spokesman Stephen Hegarty said the workers on Bella's bus followed a protocol that has dispatch operators place 911 calls.

But board member April Griffin said that policy, spelled out in a drivers' handbook, originated in 1991, before cell phones existed. Since then, board policies have been updated, but not the instructions given to drivers, she said.

It makes no logical sense, said White. "Why would they have a 21-year-old policy in place that might have caused the situation to be what it is?" he said.

"A 21-year-old policy, and two staff members that, for whatever reason, may have felt fearful, that they had no choice but to follow the policy instead of what would be common sense?"

If drivers and aides are discouraged from calling 911, Griffin said, "I want that suspended. I want the board to say they want that suspended so that 911 is called in an emergency situation. If there is any doubt you are not supposed to call 911, I want that removed. Err on the side of caution."

Olson said she is open to discussing these issues if fellow board members raise them. As chairwoman, "my job is to guide the process," she said. She declined to comment on the Facebook page.

Staff writer Sue Carlton contributed to this report.

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