1. Opinion

Column: School district is prepared for medical emergencies

Published Apr. 10, 2014

For the past year and a half I have kept my silence on a heart-wrenching case that has had a profound impact on the Hillsborough school district and on me. Though it has been frustrating to refrain from comment, it was a prudent decision; when an organization faces legal action, it is wise to avoid potentially making matters worse with comments that could be misunderstood.

Now that the case has been settled, I would like to explain how our district responded to the tragic death of Isabella Herrera, a medically fragile child who experienced a medical emergency on a school bus and died at the hospital the next day.

Any kind of injury, medical emergency, or death involving students or staff is terribly important and reverberates through our district. Despite our focus on health and safety, in a district with 203,000 students and 26,000 employees we must be prepared to deal with misfortune and tragedy.

In a typical month, our district experiences 85 to 100 requests for emergency transport due to a medical emergency. Each incident deserves immediate and appropriate attention, and several people in our school district have specific responsibilities. In this case, because Isabella died in the hospital and not at school or on a school bus, I would not have automatically been informed of it. We also have to be sensitive to privacy concerns and the wishes of the family.

At the school level, the teachers, principal, area leadership director and crisis team learned of Isabella's death and responded. They attended to the students and staff at the school who experienced a sense of loss when they learned of Isabella's passing. They also reached out to the family and provided what support they could. The principal, area leadership director and several teachers attended Isabella's funeral.

At the district level, the law firm that we have retained to handle claims against the district engaged with the attorney for the Herrera family. It is the responsibility of our attorneys to do the right thing by the family or individual who experienced the loss and to protect the rights of taxpayers.

The transportation department worked with law enforcement to determine what happened on the bus. Transportation officials ensured that all our standard safeguards were in place to preserve the rights of all the students on the bus, ensuring that our partners in law enforcement took the agreed-upon, appropriate steps in obtaining video from the bus camera.

After reviewing the bus video, law enforcement determined that no crime had been committed and reported that the hospital determined that the child died of "respiratory arrest weakness and neuromuscular syndrome." Our transportation department determined that the bus driver and attendant followed district protocol — as they understood it. The video revealed a connection failure; the bus radio was unable to get through to "dispatch" for several minutes. The bus driver repeatedly attempted to use the bus radio. It is appropriate and standard practice in Hillsborough and other school districts for bus drivers to use their radios to contact "dispatch," who then call 911. This is standard practice because cellphone coverage is faulty in some areas and not all bus drivers carry cellphones.

Despite testimony from several medical experts, there is no conclusive opinion as to whether different decisions on the bus would have yielded a different outcome. Regardless, our school district has worked to improve the reliability of our bus radio system and bolstered training for drivers, emphasizing that bus drivers can and should use their personal cellphones to call 911 when warranted. We have reached out for input from parents and professionals to see how we could improve services for special needs children — and have made multiple changes based on that input.

At the April 1 School Board meeting, at which the $800,000 settlement was finalized, Isabella's mother made an impassioned plea to board members and to the school district to keep her daughter in mind when we make decisions regarding the most vulnerable among our students. I know that board members have taken those words to heart — and I certainly have.

Our school district provides services to hundreds of precious children who have medical challenges that, at one time, would have prevented them from attending school with their peers. Just five years ago, 64 medically fragile children received specialized transportation in our district; today that number is 489. We readily accept the challenge, and the risk, as our teachers, support staff, and administrators work hard to provide the services to help the children live their lives to the fullest.

MaryEllen Elia is superintendent of Hillsborough County Schools. She wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.