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School district to review special needs staff procedures

Published:   |   Updated: March 14, 2013 at 12:23 AM

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Drivers will be urged to use "good judgment and common sense" if an emergency arises on a school bus, including making a call to 911, according to a directive from the superintendent that went out Thursday.

In addition, a task force has been formed to examine all aspects of the special education department in the aftermath of multiple incidents involving special-needs students, including two deaths.

"The recent incidents are very troubling," Superintendent MaryEllen Elia said at a school board workshop that had been scheduled on other topics. "All of the questions we’ve been asked by the media and the community are valid questions.

"We need to look at everything," Elia continued. "We are not going to sit back and hope that nothing else happens."

School board vice chairwoman April Griffin, who has criticized the district’s handling of the death of Isabella Herrera, said it will take more than a change allowing bus drivers to call 911 in an emergency.

"It goes way, way deeper than that," Griffin said. "But I think it’s a start."

The death of Bella in January, a day after she was aboard a bus on her way home from Sessums Elementary, has rocked the Hillsborough County school district.

Six of the seven school board members say they didn’t know about the death until a federal lawsuit was filed late last week. The district’s Office of Professional Standards, which investigates reports of misconduct, was never notified of the death.

The directive from the superintendent and creation of the task force come in the wake of the lawsuit and news reports about Bella’s death. The 7-year-old, who had a neuromuscular disorder that made her neck and other muscles weak, had a medical emergency on a bus going home from school.

The attorney who filed the lawsuit for Bella’s parents said her wheelchair had not been positioned properly and her head bobbed forward, cutting off her air supply and resulting in her death.

Other incidents involving the special-needs department include the drowning of a Rodgers Middle School student with Down syndrome who wandered away from gym class, the arrest of a bus driver accused of physically kicking a student off a bus and the arrest of a teacher accused of grinding a shoe in the face of an autistic boy.

In Bella’s case, neither an aide nor the bus driver called 911 after the bus pulled over to the side of the road in front of a pediatric clinic. The driver called dispatch — following district protocol — while the aide on the bus called Bella’s mother twice from her cellphone.

When Lisa Herrera arrived on the bus a few minutes later to find her daughter blue and lifeless, she called 911 herself. Bella died the next day in a local hospital.

District officials have said the aide and the driver followed proper procedures.

Through their attorney, the Herrera family said in a statement that the original policy was "inexplicable" and "defied logic and common sense."

"Although the family supports this long-overdue policy change, they want to make clear that there still exists many questions to be answered by the school board and school district," the statement said. "Changes must also be made in how the board and district maintains and protects the safety of special needs students in the Hillsborough County schools."

The task force organized by Elia will review all protocols for the exceptional education department. Headed by Deputy Superintendent Ken Otero, it is made up of district staff members and will report back to Elia in 10 days.

"We as a board need to look at the hiring and the training," said board member Susan Valdes. "This can’t happen again."

Board member Stacy White said he hopes any internal probe will be thorough and tough. He did not rule out the possibility of asking for an external investigation.

White also said he hopes complaints by parents of special needs students are taken seriously.

"There better not be a culture of dismissiveness in our ESE department," he said.

Later, as the board met behind closed doors for just over an hour to discuss the lawsuit, a handful of protesters gathered outside district headquarters.

"It broke my heart. They just don’t pay attention to the kids," said Howard Scott, who has two special-needs sons who attend East Bay High School.

"It’s more like the kids are second-class citizens," he added. "Take the responsibility for these kids like they are your own children."


(813) 259-7999


rshaw@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7999

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