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Special needs students' deaths put schools under scrutiny

TAMPA - April Griffin understands if the parents of special-needs children don't have a lot of confidence in Hillsborough County public schools right now. She's angry, even livid, in the wake of another tragedy involving the most vulnerable group of students from the nation's eighth-largest school district. "I want parents to feel safe sending their kids to us," said Griffin, the vice chairwoman of the school board. "But I can understand with what has happened recently why they wouldn't." The latest incident came to light Thursday when a federal lawsuit was filed against the district in the January death of a 7-year-old girl. Isabella Herrera, who had a neuromuscular disorder and attended Sessums Elementary, died a day after choking on a school bus as an aide and driver failed to call 911.
Instead, they called the girl's mother and waited for her to drive to where the bus had pulled to the side of the road. They parked the bus in front of a pediatric clinic at the time of the emergency, yet nobody sought medical help from the clinic as Isabella choked in her wheelchair. The district has said the driver followed proper procedure by using the on-bus radio to call a school bus dispatcher instead of 911. "I can't ignore this. I am angry at this point," she said. "If I have a little girl in front of me who can't breathe, I am going to say to heck with what I have been told," she added. "I will call 911 and deal with the consequences later. At what point does common sense kick in?" Griffin pointed out the procedure to call dispatch was put in place in 1991 when cellphones were not commonplace. She said it was something the administration came up with and was not a board policy. "I never, ever, ever would have agreed to put into writing, to guide our staff to not err on the side of caution and call 911 first," she said. "I never would have done that. Who in their right mind would say to call dispatch before you call 911?" Superintendent MaryEllen Elia defended her staff Friday, saying that the radio on a bus is meant to be the emergency system for a driver who needs help. But she acknowledged that in Isabella's case, perhaps, that procedure should not have been followed. "In hindsight, I guess that's a possibility that should have been done," she said of either the driver or the aide calling 911. The superintendent said the aide on the bus decided to call the mother because she knew she lived nearby and could get to the bus quickly. It was the frantic and devastated mother who called 911 from her cellphone after finding her daughter blue and lifeless on the bus. Neither the driver nor the aide was disciplined in the case. There was no investigation by the school district's Office of Professional Standards. "I'm floored there was no investigation," Griffin said. "I am absolutely floored." After the girl's death, the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office reviewed the videotape from the bus in conjunction with the general manager of the district's transportation department, Elia said. "There was no indication that anything that had occurred was incorrect," said the superintendent, who said she had not watched the tape. The death of Isabella, known as Bella to her family and friends, was the first of four major incidents related to the 28,000 special-needs children in the county's public schools. In September, an 8-year-old girl broke her ankle after police say a bus driver pushed her off the bus with her foot. The child, a student at Tampa Bay Boulevard Elementary, had pushed and slapped the driver before that. Police, who charged the driver with aggravated child abuse, said the child was autistic, but the district said she had another disability. The next month, a temporary teacher was charged with child abuse after police say she grinded a shoe in the face of an autistic 5-year-old boy at Seminole Heights Elementary. Then, two weeks later, an 11-year-old girl with Down syndrome wandered from a gym class at Rodgers Middle School and drowned in a nearby pond. Deputies are close to wrapping up their investigation into the drowning of Jenny Caballero. The girl's mother lashed out at the school district this week, accusing it of being negligent in not watching her daughter closely enough. Odette Baez is worried her niece could be next. "It's very concerning to us," Baez said about the rash of incidents involving special-needs students. "All of these things keep happening. I do not want this to happen to my niece. I am not going to allow my niece to become one of these kids." Stephanie Townsell is a 7-year-old with the body of a 4- or 5-year-old. She attends Corr Elementary and has a chromosome defect that affects her motor and social skills. Baez has voiced concerns about Stephanie's experiences in the classroom and on the bus. While things at school have gotten better, she said, the same is not true for the bus. Stephanie's adopted mother has to climb on the bus to make sure she is strapped into her seat correctly, Baez said. The aide on the bus has told them she can't handle the students. "Then she should not be in that job. They are not trained," Baez said. "They are pulling anyone they can to sit there and babysit. But trained people need to be there with these kids." Steve Maher, an attorney from Winter Park who filed the federal lawsuit against the district Thursday in the death of Isabella, echoed the comments of Baez. "It is a huge problem," Maher said of the recent rash of incidents involving special-needs students. "They are not providing the resources to keep these kids safe." Griffin suggests the school district should look at paying higher salaries for bus drivers and aides. The driver, who quit three months after Bella's death, earned $10.56 an hour. The aide, who still works for the district, is paid $8.75 an hour. "We need to shift priorities," the board member said. "This is an area that is in desperate need of an overhaul." A school spokesman said Thursday that the incidents are isolated and not indicative of an overall problem. Griffin, who did not know about the girl's death until this week, said she forced herself to watch the video taken from the school bus before she went to bed Thursday night. "I did not sleep well last night," she said. "It was absolutely gut-wrenching to watch." Candy Olson, chairwoman of the school board, watched the video as well. "It was very painful. I'm a mom. That could be my child," Olson said. "We're horrified. We do not want this to happen again." TROUBLING TREND  

Here is a look at incidents involving special-needs students in Hillsborough this year:

Jan. 26: Isabella Herrera, 7, dies a day after choking on a school bus ride home from Sessums Elementary in Riverview. No one from the bus called 911 as the girl turned blue and stopped breathing.

Sept. 28: An 8-year-old girl at Tampa Bay Boulevard Elementary breaks her ankle after being pushed off a school bus by the driver. The child had slapped and pushed the driver, who was charged with aggravated child abuse.

Oct. 9: A temporary teacher at Seminole Heights Elementary is charged with child abuse after rubbing a shoe on the face of a 5-year-old boy.

Oct. 23: Jenny Caballero, 11, wanders from a physical education class at Rodgers Middle School and drowns in a nearby pond.

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