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Hillsborough school board members fuming over special-needs student's death on bus

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Published:   |   Updated: March 14, 2013 at 12:05 AM
TAMPA -

A member of the Hillsborough County School Board says she is disgusted by the school district's position in the case of a special-needs girl who died a day after a bus ride home.

"This all boils down to one simple question for me," said April Griffin, vice chairwoman of the school board. "How would I want my child treated in a similar situation? If my child were turning blue, call 911. It's not rocket science."

The family of Isabella Herrera, a second-grader at Sessums Elementary who had a neuromuscular disorder, is suing the school district in federal court in the wake of the girl's death in January. Bella, as she was known to her family, died in a hospital the day after she was improperly positioned in her wheelchair while riding a bus home from school, her family's attorneys say.

Because her wheelchair was not tilted back, the family says, Bella's head bobbed forward uncontrollably several times, eventually cutting off her air supply. Once an aide on the bus discovered she was in distress, neither the aide nor the driver called 911. The aide called Bella's mother on her cellphone twice while the driver tried to radio the district's bus-dispatch office that there was an emergency onboard.

The girl's mother, Lisa Herrera, called 911 frantically after arriving to find her daughter blue and lifeless.

The district has said that the two employees followed proper protocol by trying to reach central dispatch instead of calling 911 themselves. No district investigation was done, and neither was disciplined for the incident, which some board members learned of only after the lawsuit was filed.

"I think there are some board members who are going to have a lot of questions," Griffin said. "I know that I do."

The topic could come up at a board meeting Thursday.

Griffin wants to know why the aide, Joanna Hamilton, is still employed by the district.

"There was no thought that she had done anything wrong," Griffin said. "Are you kidding me? I am flabbergasted by that.

"I don't want her with our children any more," she added. "She has already proven she can't handle situations. She's already failed that test. This is not about a pound of flesh for me, this is about ensuring that our children are safe. I would not feel comfortable putting my special-needs child, if I had one, in her care."

The bus driver resigned several months after Bella's death.

Like Griffin, board members Jack Lamb, Doretha Edgecomb and Stacy White said Monday they didn't know about the girl's death until the lawsuit was filed last week. Board chairwoman Candy Olson said last week she was aware of the matter when it happened.

"I was a little surprised at the whole thing, not knowing anything," Lamb said. "I would think that is something we should have known. It's a very serious thing. This whole thing is kind of strange."

Especially odd, Lamb said, was that the bus pulled over on the side of the road in front of a pediatric clinic, but that neither district worker sought medical help there.

"What blew my mind is they were outside a clinic," Lamb said.

"Of course it's tragic," Edgecomb said. "This is something we don't take lightly.

"You can say those people followed procedures as they were taught," she added. "But what about the absence of sensibility? A situation like that needed a different kind of response."

White said he plans to ask district staff for any documentation where board members were alerted to the death.

If none exists? "I plan to take them to task," White said.

The girl's death is just one of a handful of incidents related to special-needs students in the past 10 months.

Griffin hopes now that the district does what she says is the right thing: settling with the family and not getting into a costly and protracted legal battle.

"I don't want to drag this family through any more than they have been through," the vice chairwoman said. "It's about doing what's right. Let's deal with this situation right now."


rshaw@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7999

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