Parents blame Hillsborough school district for child's death after bus ride

A video image shows the aide going to Bella’s chair. “We need to get on the phone with K6 and we need 911,” the aide tells the driver.
A video image shows the aide going to Bella’s chair. “We need to get on the phone with K6 and we need 911,” the aide tells the driver.
Published Nov. 2, 2012

TAMPA — Bella Herrera, 7, read like a fourth-grader. She liked the color pink, Barbie dolls and playing dress up. She dreamed of being a singer.

But riding home from school on Jan. 25, she could not breathe.

Under the watch of a driver and an aide on a Hillsborough County school bus, she turned blue, lost consciousness and never regained it.

In a video of the incident, the aide repeatedly stated to the driver, "We need 911." But neither woman can be heard calling 911. Instead, the aide called Bella's mother, and the driver called a supervisor.

The girl died the next morning at a hospital.

Her parents, Lisa and Dennis Herrera, filed a lawsuit Thursday in U.S. District Court against the Hillsborough County school district, alleging a violation of Bella's civil rights as a disabled person.

Bella, a second-grader at Sessums Elementary in Riverview, used a wheelchair. She had a neuromuscular disorder, which weakened her neck and left her unable to walk. On top of that, her mother said, Bella may have had lingering mucous from a sinus infection.

Her personal education plan included specialized transportation, her parents said.

The parents contend the staffers never positioned Bella to prevent her head from flopping forward after securing her wheelchair in the bus.

• • •

It was Bella's idea to ride the bus, her mom said. She wanted to be like other kids. So, each day, she and her chair would ascend a lift. A bus aide would strap her in place. And then, Bella's chair was supposed to be tilted back to stabilize her head.

In the Jan. 25 video, her head does not appear stable.

It toppled forward at least 10 times. Each time, Bella appeared to lift it up with effort.

The aide sat in the middle of the bus, at times giving road directions to the driver, who was new, occasionally glancing back at Bella and another student near her.

Twelve minutes into the trip, at 2:24 p.m. on the video, Bella's mouth opened wide and her head began moving from side to side.

Within 30 seconds, the aide was at Bella's side. She told the driver to pull over to the side of the road, and she grabbed what looked to be paperwork.

"We need to get on the phone with K6 and we need 911," the aide called out to the driver.

The drama played out as the bus sat parked in front of a pediatrics clinic near Balm Riverview and Rhodine roads.

The driver couldn't make the radio work.

"Is it on?" the aide asked.

"It's on," the driver said.

"Could you reach them by phone?"

The driver got on a phone with a supervisor, but two minutes passed since the aide first suggested 911.

The driver told the supervisor that a child couldn't breathe and that they needed an ambulance.

She turned back to the aide and, at 2:27 p.m., asked, "Do we have a new radio on this bus?"

Aide: "I don't know."

Driver, into phone: "She doesn't know."

Aide: "She can't breathe."

Driver, about the radio: "It's on. It's on. I got the noise, but it doesn't go through. All right. We got a child who can't breathe, so . . ."

Aide: "She's turning blue."

Driver: "She's turning blue."

At 2:29 p.m., the aide called Bella's mother and then, holding up a cell phone, told the driver that the mom was on her way.

At 2:32 p.m., Bella's mother arrived. She screamed that they needed to do CPR.

She also called 911 from her cell phone.

"She's blue. Please hurry," she screeched.

At 2:37 p.m., a child in the front of the bus, one of about a half-dozen onboard, said, excitedly, "I see them! It's a police car."

The back door opened to an officer, then a defibrillator.

"Ambulance," a child shouted at 2:42 p.m., and a minute later, a paramedic was onboard.

Nothing could be done.

Bella was pronounced dead the next day at St. Joseph's Children's Hospital.

• • •

"This is a tragic situation," said school district spokesman Stephen Hegarty.

He said he couldn't comment on pending litigation. "We're going to let the facts come out in court," he said.

He said a review was completed after Bella's death and neither employee was disciplined.

Neither could be reached for comment. The aide, Joanna Hamilton, has worked for the school district since November 2010, he said. The driver, Tonia Dole-Pizarro, started in January. She left in April.

It has been a troubling time for the district, particularly when it comes to exceptional student education.

The department serves 29,000 students with various disabilities, including 4,200 in exceptional student education classes.

In recent months:

• An 11-year-old girl with Down syndrome drowned in a pond behind Rodgers Middle School in Riverview. The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office is wrapping up its investigation. Officials say the child walked away from a physical education class where several teachers' aides were supposed to provide supervision.

• A school bus driver was arrested on a charge that she pushed an 8-year-old girl with autism off a bus and caused the child to break her ankle.

• A teacher at Seminole Heights Elementary School was arrested on child abuse charges after witnesses said she disciplined a 5-year-old autistic boy by grinding a shoe in his face.

• The mother of a former Gaither High School student, who had relocated to California, returned to Tampa for a due process hearing concerning her child's treatment. Chelsea Fabiszak, 20, has Rett syndrome, a neurological disorder that causes seizures and developmental delays. Her parents contend the district failed to provide services she needed.

Spokesman Hegarty was hesitant to link the incidents.

"They are unrelated," he said. "But whenever anything happens, whether it is one event or two or more, we do look at it. Of course we look at it, whether it has to do with bus driver aides or anything else."

The School Board's incoming chairwoman, April Griffin, sees a need for talk about training.

"I don't want to be knee-jerk," she said. "But when this many situations come to light, this close together, they can't be ignored."

Times researcher John Martin and staff writer Jessica Vander Velde contributed to this report.