1. The Education Gradebook

Sue Carlton: In special education crisis, we need to see what's going on

Published Dec. 22, 2012

Fair to say the Hillsborough County School District has a crisis on its hands.

By now you've seen the headlines: A girl with Down syndrome wanders from gym class and drowns. A girl in a wheelchair chokes while riding the school bus and later dies. A bus driver and a teacher are each charged with abusing special needs students.

When it comes to figuring out what went wrong and how to fix it, school bureaucracies are infamous for, well, bureaucracy. You can find yourself embroiled in a half-hour discussion over whether the way something was done is a school "rule," or just "training," or perhaps "protocol" as opposed to "policy." You can argue that if it's what school employees were told to do, it's all of those, but good luck with that.

So it is encouraging to see school officials respond with a lengthy report recommending changes in training, communication and staffing, plus a three-hour workshop next month. Board chairwoman April Griffin also brought up the idea of hiring an outside auditor — a threat to the current power structure that could be promising in a system marked by politics and who's got whose back.

But in the midst of progress are signs of obfuscation (now there's a bureaucratic word for you) and a lack of transparency. Yes, school officials need to tread carefully because of litigation both pending and expected. But an understandably concerned public also needs to know this crisis is being addressed without any hint of ambiguity, politics or cover-up.

Recently the head of the special education department was quietly transferred to a lateral position. Schools superintendent MaryEllen Elia called her a great administrator who had done a "wonderful" job in exceptional education.

Okay, so she was moved why exactly? Was she being held responsible for something? Was it coincidence?

Later, a school spokesman told me that Joyce Wieland asked for the transfer, that given how the department has been perceived, it might be better for someone else to implement the coming changes. Why not make this clear to the public closely watching how all of this is being handled?

In the case of Bella Herrera, the 7-year-old who choked while on the bus and later died at the hospital, the driver and the aide on video dealing with what is clearly a serious medical crisis did not call 911. Instead, they tried to have dispatch or a supervisor call 911, which a spokesman later described as standard procedure.

Responding to suggestions that employees were afraid or even told not to call 911, Elia said they can, that there was never any rule against it.

An even more mind-boggling detail is that there was no written report by the school district about what happened on the bus — the explanation being no employee appeared to have done anything wrong.

Seriously? When they write a report when a kid sprains an ankle?

For perspective, the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office informs the public when an inmate dies — even of natural causes. That's inmates, not schoolchildren.

The good news here is that school officials seem to be moving forward in figuring out what needs to change here. Even better would be doing it transparently in the name of the public trust.