Tampa, Florida - The Hillsborough School District reviewed its policy regarding the care of special needs students. The move came after one student was injured and two died under the care of District staff. Two of the incidents happened on school buses.
While board members meet to discuss pending litigation against the District, protestors are outside the Hillsborough School District Administration Building.
Now, instead of school bus drivers' radioing dispatch first when there's an emergency and then having them call 911, the new policy states the driver and aide can call 911 if the situation warrants it. The school board's message is clear to please use "common sense."
Last month school bus driver Stephanie Wilkerson was arrested for child abuse after police say she pushed an autistic child with her foot off the school bus. The child broke her ankle. The incident happened in September at Tampa Bay Boulevard Elementary.
In October, Jennifer Caballero, a student with Down Syndrome at Rodgers Middle School wandered off and drown in a retention pond on school property.
The most recent case surfaced last week when the parents of Isabella Herrera filed a federal law suit against the Hillsborough School District for neglect.
Isabella suffered from a neuromuscular disorder that weakened her legs and neck. On January 25th, Isabella rode the school bus home when she started having trouble breathing. Even though the aide told the driver they needed to call 911, they didn't. The aide called Isabella's mother and the driver followed District protocol and radioed in to dispatch. Isabella's mother arrived 15 minutes later and called 911, but Isabella died the next day.
During Thursday's school board workshop, they clarified District policy to all bus staff to call 911.
Hillsborough School Board member April Griffin told the board, "I want to make sure our staff understands using common sense will not get them in trouble with this board."
Superintendent MaryEllen Elia told the board that a group is already reviewing District protocol regarding special needs students.
Elia said, "That includes staff models, training supervision, emergency calls, and height on fences."
Hillsborough School Board member Stacey White said he'll give the District a chance to rectify the problems. Said White, "If action is required by the Superintendent, my expectation is the action be swift and decisive. I'm clearly giving staff a chance here but if I suspect a lack of objectivity I have no issue with an internal investigation."
Elia defended the District's bus staff. She said, "Our bus drivers and aides on our buses try very hard to cover every existing situation and do everything they can to support those children."
School board members learned of Isabella's death last week the day her family filed a lawsuit against the District and the school bus video was released to the local media.
Griffin said she saw the school bus video of Isabella's last moments and could hardly sleep that night. She said, "It was gut wrenching, I'm a parent, it was difficult to watch."
Today's message from the board to bus staff was clear.
Griffin said, "Use common sense, address the situation, call 911, air on the side of caution you will be fine."
Robocalls went out to all bus staff Thursday evening, informing them of the new policy to call 911 in an emergency.
The Superintendent's group will meet for 10 days and present its recommendations to the board. Elia said the District will have to wait until the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office finished its investigation into the Rodgers Middle School drowning before the District's Office of Professional Standards investigates.
Isabella Herrera's parents released a statement through their attorney Steven Maher in response to the School Board's actions and review of policy:
Steven R. Maher, Herrera family attorney wrote, "The Herrera family is obviously relieved that the School District has finally replaced its inexplicable policy that prohibited school bus drivers from calling 911; a policy that 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. 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."