Hillsborough School District will review policies after deaths of special needs kids spark outrage

TAMPA - Katharine Bower came to the protest carrying not only signs and banners, but also a small locket hanging from her neck.  It's a picture of Isabella Herrera, the seven year old special needs student who died while riding home on a school bus back in January.

"My son was friends with Bella," Bower said.  "I want to see these people take this seriously and hopefully make a change in the system for all of our kids' safety," she said.

Bower's sentiments were echoed by a dozen other demonstrators outside the Hillsborough County School District, after the deaths of two special needs students while under school supervision.

Joe Robinson of Tampa said he wants school board members and administration staff to resign or be fired if they were in any way responsible for the neglect of ESE kids.  

"Here we've got three deaths, students hurt, and nobody put on administrative leave and nobody fired," Robinson said. "This is criminal child neglect," he said.

The Hillsborough School Board agreed to issue a memo to school bus drivers that it's ok to call 9-1-1 in an emergency.  Current policy requires drivers to call dispatch or a supervisor, but doesn't preclude them from making an 9-1-1 call.  In the case of Herrera, no staff member on the bus called for paramedics when she stopped breathing.

"I think it's sad to see that the big policy decision was now you can call 9-1-1," said Jose Colindres of Tampa.  "I think that's so little, so late," he said.

The Hillsborough School Board said it's going to enact a task force to investigate problems with student supervision.  But skeptical parents wanted more accountability, calling for an outside investigation.

The international group Autism Rights Watch issued an open letter to the district, asking for a review of its policies and offering to help officials better train their staff.

April Griffin, a board member, said she disapproved of parents or groups protesting the district over the tragic deaths of students, but acknowledged that there is anger over the incidents.

"I've definitely heard some frustration," Griffin said.  "We are moving in a positive direction as I see it to make sure that it never happens again."

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