TAMPA - On Thursday, about 20 to 30 protesters held signs outside the Childrens' Board of Hillsborough County, protesting the treatment of special needs students by Hillsborough County Public Schools. Some were parents of special needs students, others were activists for the disabled, but all say the district has neglected the needs of these students for too long.
The recent drowning death of 11-year old special needs student Jenny Caballero was the last straw, say protesters.
The lack of training of special education aides was also addressed by the group. There are more than 3,500 special education aides in Bay Area schools. The I-Team has been looking into the qualifications listed by local school districts for special education aides, and one expert says many school districts fall short.
When 11-year old Jenny Caballero ran from a crowded gym class at Rodgers Middle School, five special education aides were supposed to be watching her. After a search lasting several hours, her body was found in a pond near the school. A gym coach told investigators just days earlier, he had warned a school administrator that aides weren't paying enough attention to special needs students.
Dr. Ritu Chopra directs paraprofessional research at the University of Colorado Denver. She says there are no comprehensive federal or state standards for special education aides, so training standards are determined by local school districts. She says those districts aren't doing enough to train aides.
"It's a huge problem. We are placing students with significant needs with people who are least qualified to serve them, and I think that's a very sad and tragic situation," Dr. Chopra said.
The I-Team looked at the qualifications listed for hiring special education aides at several local school districts. Most require or recommend some additional training, but Hillsborough County's doesn't.
"I feel that the Hillsborough County requirements were the weakest compared to others, and none of them were really complete," Dr. Chopra said.
Hillsborough County Public School officials say they are looking at a number of potential changes to improve the safety of special needs students. The five aides who were watching Jenny Caballero have been suspended with pay, pending an internal investigation into their actions. The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office determined no criminal charges were warranted.
On Friday, the Superintendent's Council for the Education of Students with Disabilities plans to discuss potential improvements. District spokesman Steve Hegarty says additional training is being considered.
"That is definitely one of the major areas we're looking at right now," Hegarty said.
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