Parents fired up at school board meeting over district's handling of recent student deaths

District works to regain parents' confidence

TAMPA - Some parents got fired up Tuesday night at a school board meeting in Hillsborough County over the handling of recent incidents that lead to the deaths of two students with special needs.

A handful of concerned parents showed up early to protest the district's response to the incidents.

"As a parent and a former teacher of special needs children, I'm appalled at these words," said Michael Weston, one of the concerned parents about what he heard during the meeting.

It's been a tough couple months for the school board that has had to deal with multiple tragedies.

It started with the death of Jenny Caballero, a student with special needs, who wondered away from gym class and drowned in a pond last month.

Then there was the glaring lack of communication in the death of Isabella Herrera on a school bus -- she also has special needs.

On Tuesday, the sheriff's office released its report on what they're calling an accidental drowning. No charges will be filed, but the school has suspended five aids.

The report makes it clear the staff was not on the same page when it came to the protocols of handling a missing student.

One concerned parent, Susan Parks, was brought to tears when she spoke Tuesday. She says the kids deserve better.

"(Families deserve) the right place for their child, the right services for their child, and not to feel so scared and intimated," she said.

The parents were as angry as board members were frustrated.

"I insist that the investigation is top to bottom," said Dr. Stacy White, who sits on the school board.

Another board member, Susan Valdes, implied the problem might be her own board members.

"I believe we have a systematic problem and it begins with the leadership of this board," she said.

Now that the sheriff's office report is complete, Superintendent MaryEllen Elia says the district can do it's own internal investigation and it will start immediately.

"We are looking at everything," she said. "We have to do everything we can to regain the confidence of parents who entrust us with their children."

The superintendent says the district assembled a work group to review all policies and procedures, especially those involved in the recent incidents.

That group will report back in ten days.

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