Since January three Hillsborough County students with disabilities have died during school-related events.
Isabella Herrera, 7, died in January after she had trouble breathing on a school bus.
Jesse Shillingford, 15, drowned at a back-to-school party hosted by a charter school.
And Jennifer Caballero, 11, wandered away from a gym class — and five aides — and drowned in October.
Now, a group of parents wants more training for those working with students with disabilities.
About two dozen protestors gathered at the Children’s Trust in Tampa, holding signs reading “Cut$ Co$t Lives” and “Stop School Abuse.”
Some asked for Superintendent MaryEllen Elia and school board member Candy Olson to resign.
Clearwater resident Melissa Tremblay helped organize the event. She says when she heard about the recent deaths she thought about her daughter with Down syndrome.
Tremblay says people who work with students with disabilities must be trained.
“We are definitely looking for mandated training, especially for the aides,” she says. “When you pull somebody in out of the cafeteria to become your child’s aide it’s not safe, and it’s not educationally relevant.”
A school district panel is reviewing special education programs and will report back to the school board. The district is getting help from national groups such as the Council of Great City Schools.
“We have to do everything we can to retain and regain the confidence of parents who entrust us with their children,” Elia told the Tampa Bay Times. “We’re looking at everything. If there’s something wrong, incomplete or out of date, we will fix it.”
One school board member told the paper he’ll call for an outside investigation if he feels that the school district response is inadequate.
Helyn Moore says she’s had mixed experiences with Hillsborough County schools. She believes the district needs a culture change toward students with disabilities.
Two years ago school officials called her to report Moore’s then 15-year-old autistic son was getting on the bus home when he picked up an orange object off the ground and ate it. The school officials thought it might be aspirin.
Moore got the voicemail message on her phone about 6 p.m. Her son had gotten on the bus about three hours earlier.
Why, she wondered, had it taken the school so long to report the incident?
Moore says the school also combined several autistic students in a classroom with student with behavior issues. Her son was bullied by classmates and did not get the education he should have.
“They viewed that program as a nuisance” Moore says. “They didn’t value those students.
“We have to have a respect for the disabled. How about some education? Some real functional living skills for them?”
Since then Moore has moved her son to another Hillsborough County high school and is very happy with the program.
Moore wants required training for aides. She believes the district should have more one-on-one help for students — changes that would cost more.
But not every thing they are asking for will cost more money, Tremblay said. Some things — such as bus drivers calling 911 first rather than a supervisor or parent — only require common sense.
The protestors said they have spoken with some state lawmakers and are trying to get a bill introduced during the next legislative session.