Parents of special needs students in Pinellas Co. fear staff cuts will cause physical harm to kids

LARGO, Fla - Yadira Calderon's daughter, 6-year-old Thomais, shares many similarities with Jenny Caballero, an 11-year-old special needs student who attended school in Hillsborough County .

There are slight differences between the girls.

Thomais is five years younger, attends school in Pinellas County and is autistic. Caballero had Down's Syndrome and attended Roger's Middle School in Riverview.

There is one big difference between the girls.  Calderon hopes her daughter's story doesn't end like Caballero's. 

Caballero drowned in a retention pond behind Roger's Middle School on October 22, 2012.  Caballero was  under the supervision of six teacher's aides when she wandered out of an indoor gym class unnoticed.

Calderon, parents of other special needs students as well as teachers warned Pinellas County School District leaders Wednesday night that budget cuts could result in more children being harmed or even killed.

"Different skills, different needs, one teacher and one assistant and there are toileting issues," explained Calderon of conditions in special needs classrooms throughout the district.

Calderon, a special needs teacher's aide herself, told ABC Action News she became so concerned for her daughter's safety, she transferred Thomais to another school this year.

Special needs teacher Jennifer Lumm works at San Jose Elementary in Dunedin. 

District leaders featured the school in an online video on their website.

"As you enter our school, which is home to over 460 students, you will see how clean and safe it is," explained the narrator.

A different picture was painted at the meeting.

Lumm sites under-staffing as the primary problem and explained teachers are becoming more like babysitters.

"We can't keep an eye on the kids and ensure their safety and teach them at the same time," said Lumm.

Lumm added some of her students are in diapers, others need help eating and a some throw frequent tantrums.

Executive Director of the Exceptional Student Education program in Pinellas County, Dr. Lisa Grant Eh.D, fielded questions for two hours.

However, her answers were not what parents wanted to hear.

Grant explained that in the 2015 school year, special needs teachers would lose one or more of their assistants citing fiscal responsibility.

"I think we are in the middle of change and change is difficult," said Dr. Grant.

Grant also delivered more frustrating news.  The district is moving forward with what they are referring to as "clustering" of special needs classrooms across the district.

In other words, the district is consolidating, widening the gap between student teacher ratio even more.  In addition, Grant acknowledged some students would have to be bused to new schools, some of which are 45 minutes to an hour away from their homes.

"We believe in the long run it is better for students to give them better services," Grant explained.

Lumm said these cutbacks only spell trouble.

"They are saying they want the kids to succeed but really they are taking that support away from us to help these kids succeed," she concluded.

Lumm told ABC Action News she refuses to compromise the safety and welfare of her students.

Parents, teachers and district leaders are slated to meet again on May 14.

Some parents worry between now and then a student could be harmed.


Last December, the Hillsborough County School District approved a settlement with Caballero's family .
Caballero's family was slated to receive more than a half-million dollars.
Under the deal, Caballero's family agreed not to sue in exchange for a lump sum of $200,000, and then total payments of almost $400,000 over time.
After investigations by the school district and the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, three staff members from the school in Riverview were fired.  There were also several resignations.
The school district increased training after Caballero's death, and the death of another special needs child on a bus in January 2012.


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