Lisa Herrera wants Hillsborough school administrators to keep her daughter in their minds as they consider changes to the district’s transportation department and assess the care given to special-needs students.
“I hope it’s her face you see when making critical decisions for your district,” Herrera told School Board members during an emotional meeting this past week to approve an $800,000 legal settlement resulting from the death of her 7-year-old child, Isabella.
That’s good advice for administrators and school board members trying to resolve the issues raised after Isabella’s death in 2012. A second-grader with a neuromuscular disorder, Isabella stopped breathing on a school bus after her head lurched forward while in her wheelchair. The driver tried calling dispatch for help, then called Isabella’s mother. But the driver never called 911 to summon paramedics. Isabella died the next day.
Months after that tragic episode, a Down syndrome student walked away from a school unnoticed and drowned in a nearby pond.
The deaths pulled the curtain back on problems within the district’s transportation department, and with the oversight of special-needs students.
The lawsuit resulting from Isabella’s death alleged systemic problems. Transportation employees complain of broken equipment, aging buses and unsympathetic leadership. The person Superintendent MaryEllen Elia put in charge of special-needs students, Joyce Wieland, didn’t have the certification expected for someone in that job. After the deaths, Wieland was allowed to transfer to a job with similar pay while lower-level employees were singled out for punishment. Most board members didn’t learn of Isabella’s death until the lawsuit was announced months later.
To its credit, the district is conducting investigations and internal reviews. It’s planning to update the bus fleet. Drivers have been told they can call 911 first during medical emergencies, and the district says staff members who interact with special-needs students are being trained about the disabilities they encounter. A review of the transportation department by an outside consultant is underway.
Not surprisingly, all of this has done little to mollify Board Member April Griffin, who is convinced Elia is trying to whitewash the internal and external findings.
Griffin has legitimate complaints with the administration’s silence after Isabella’s death and Wieland’s transfer, and says Elia can be dismissive of the board’s concerns.
But Griffin also seems unwilling to give Elia any credit for the considerable progress that has been made during her tenure.
In the end, it’s about fixing transportation problems and looking out for the district’s most vulnerable students. If at all possible, Elia and Griffin need to put their hard feelings aside and find common ground that can result in positive changes.
Two years after her daughter’s death, Herrera remains frustrated. “It’s a lot of talking and not a lot of doing,” she said. Her pleas accentuate the need to listen to the employees who work on the front lines, and to the parents who have children with special needs. Those children can be the most challenging to educate, but that’s no excuse for what happened after Isabella stopped breathing on a bus ride home from school, and to Jennifer Caballero, the 11-year-old student with Down syndrome who drowned not far from the school responsible for looking after her.
This is an opportunity for the district to fix the problems exposed by these tragedies, and to give the parents of special-needs students the comfort in knowing their children’s needs will be met from the time they climb aboard the bus in the morning until the time they are returned each day.