TAMPA, Florida -- The Hillsborough County School District is under fire for its treatment of special needs students. Two students died this year, and another one was injured. Now, one family is suing the district for negligence.
District officials are reviewing procedures, and today the school board took a look at some recommendations.
Three groups are looking into how to improve services for special needs students. 10 News reported on the superintendent's workgroup's findings last Monday. Since then, a report from a national group called the Council of the Great City Schools and the superintendent's Exceptional Student Education Advisory Council, which is made up of parents, have reviewed procedures.
While no vote was taken at today's meeting, it was a chance for the board to see what changes are needed. The board also had a chance to hear from the public, and some community advocates say the district's problems run deeper than procedures and training.
"Trust! How are you going to regain trust in the community and trust in each other?" asked Jose Colindres from The Brink Foundation.
Community advocates say the recommended changes should have been in place after Isabella Herrera's death in January. In October, her parents filed a lawsuit against the district. They say their daughter suffocated to death because her wheelchair was not properly secured on the bus.
A school bus surveillance video showed bus staff did not call 9-1-1 or do CPR on Isabella. Her mother did. The bus aide called Isabella's mother after she realized she was non-responsive. According to district officials, the school board was never notified of Isabella's death, nor was a district investigation done.
Then in October, Jennifer Caballero, a middle school student with down syndrome, managed to walk out of her school gym and drowned in a retention pond on campus.
Terry Kimball, a community advocate, said if the board had known of Isabella's case in January these recommendations would have been made months ago, and Jennifer's life may have been spared.
The Council of the Great City Schools offered these recommendations:
- Training of ESE staff, bus drivers, and aides needs to be standardized, accessible to current and new employees throughout the year, and some training should be mandatory.
- Emergency procedures should be simplified, schools need an ESE school staffing plan, and a plan for when a student goes missing.
- The district should switch to an electronic database and recording system instead of paper. The superintendent's education advisory group asks for better communication.
The superintendent's workgroup recommends bonuses for ESE staff, but the Council of the Great City Schools said that money is better spent on more training and professional development.
Speaker Joe Robinson disagrees and said higher salaries may provide better results. Robinson said, "They don't make money. It's an issue. I know what these aides get paid. Let's put money on the table. You get what you pay for."
Isabella Herrera's family released this statement today through their attorney regarding the list of recommendations:
"The Herrera family is encouraged that the Hillsborough County School Board and Hillsborough County School District are finally taking steps to evaluate the safety procedures for special education students. It is tragic, however, that it took multiple deaths and injuries of special needs children over the past year to prompt this action. It is their hope that all students of Hillsborough County, including those with special needs, will be afforded the safety and protection they require and deserve while under the care and supervision of the school system."
The Hillsborough School Board agreed to have a 3-hour-long workshop in January to continue its discussion of the recommendations and they agreed to quarterly progress reports from the superintendent.