Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Silence of the Voice of Justice

“Throughout history, it has been the inaction of those who could have acted; the indifference of those who should have known better; the silence of the voice of justice when it mattered most; that has made it possible for evil to triumph.”  
Haile Selassie

January 25th is the anniversary of the death of a 7 year old girl named Isabella Herrera. Isabella died on a Hillsborough County school bus. There is raw bus footage that shows what happened in graphic detail. Isabella is one of a series of students who have died while in the care of the Hillsborough County Public School system. 

Image of young Isabella Herrera in a black
and red formal dress in her wheelchair
credit The Tampa Tribune
Each of these children deserves to be remembered. They deserve to matter. I included their photographs so everyone reading this can understand that these young lives did not deserve to end so quickly and so horribly. All their deaths happened while they were in the care of the public school system. And all their deaths could have been prevented.

 Isabella Herrera age 7,  was a girl who wished to ride the bus like every other student. She wanted that independence. Quoting WTSP 10News Tampa:

"Isabella's mother says she suffered from a neuromuscular disorder that impacted her walking and head control. Otherwise, Lisa says, she was a normal kid who wanted to ride the school bus.
"She felt good about it; she felt independent. She felt great. I trusted them to bring her home safe every day," says Lisa."

" January 25, Isabella boarded the school bus at Sessums Elementary at 2:07 p.m. Her parents say the school bus driver and aid failed to slightly tilt Isabella's wheel chair so her head would be stabilized, as her Individual Education Plan or IEP requires.
Lisa says during the three months Isabella rode the school bus, she had to remind bus drivers and aids about her daughter's needs.
"They are supposed to be trained for each child's needs, each child on the bus- know their disability, know what to do," Lisa says.
The school bus video shows Isabella's head bobbing forward and backwards about a dozen times over a span of 17 minutes. At 2:24 p.m., the school bus aid calls out "Isabella- Isabella.""

Isabella had gone into respiratory arrest.  Despite Mrs. Herrera's efforts and calling 911, Isabella died.

Keith Coty was ill and taken from his first
grade class at Seminole Heights Elementary a year ago
 and later died. credit ANDY JONES/STAFF The
Tampa Tribune

This is the late Keith Coty. Just over a year ago, Keith had a medical emergency in school.  No CPR was performed. Again school officials delayed in calling 911.  Per The Tampa tribune:

"Here’s what attorneys say happened on Jan. 16, 2014: the Coty boy complained of a severe headache to his teacher. He was sent to the back of the classroom to lay down and started vomiting. The school nurse was called to the room and a voice mail was left for the boy’s mother to come pick him up."

"By the time Teets arrived, the boy’s lips were blue and he was unresponsive. The 911 call was placed by an employee in the front office, 34 minutes after Keith first complained about his headache. An emergency medical crew arrived and administered CPR, raising a pulse."

"The boy was brought to the emergency room at Saint Joseph’s Hospital, where doctors learned he had suffered a brain hemorrhage. They performed emergency surgery, but the boy had been without oxygen for too long. He died the next day after being taken off life support."

This is the late Jennifer Caballero, a vibrant, 11 year old student. She went missing during her school day and was later found dead.  Per
Jennifer Caballero, was found dead in a retention
pond. She was 11.  credit Tampa Bay Times
the Tampa Bay Times: " Jennifer Caballero hid under the bleachers, away from her classmates and six teacher's aides, away from the other 140 or so students also in the gym."

"A teacher saw Jennifer — an 11-year-old girl with Down syndrome — and took her back to rejoin her class of about 20."

"But sometime within the next half hour on Monday afternoon, Jennifer walked out of the Rodgers Middle School gym and onto a grassy field."

"Six hours later, deputies found her dead in a retention pond on school grounds."

"On Tuesday, a key question remained: How did she escape the notice of six teacher's aides — especially when someone knew she had already tried to hide once?"

What was Jennifer hiding from? No one asks this question. The presumption, as my colleague Kassiane Sibley recently pointed out, that neurodivergent people of all ages are  human dowsing rods magically attracted to water unfortunately eliminates any investigation of why she felt unsafe to the degree that she hid under the bleachers and did not wish to participate in gym class. So the presumption that Jennifer's behavior was not her own attempt to seek safety from something or someone, and simply happened because she was disabled negates any chance we might learn what upsetting triggers were in her school setting. 

This is the late Kadeem Jesse Shillingford. Jesse was a sophomore at a Hillsborough County public charter school for
image of  the late Jesse Shillingford smiling in a school photo
he drowned at a school sponsored event credit myfox Tampa Bay
students with disabilities. He drowned at a back to school pool party in view of lifeguards, teachers, parent volunteers, and students, about 140 people in all. Per the Tampa Bay Times

 "City recreation officials once took at face value the number of people that organizerss said would attend pool parties at the Family Recreation Center. But now, said City Manager Gerald Seeber, the city is careful to follow-up, making sure of the head count, so it can bring in extra lifeguards if necessary."

"That's the main policy change imposed in the aftermath of the September 2012 drowning of Kadeem Jesse Shillingford in the city pool. It's an effort "to do our best to ensure that a tragedy like that never happens again,'' Seeber said."

"The 15-year-old mildly autistic student at Pepin Academy lay on the bottom of the pool for five minutes before anyone noticed him during the night-time back-to-school party. Security cameras showed the youngster, who could not swim, going down the slide in the deep end and struggling in the water before sinking. Another child finally spotted him. He spent four days on life support before dying."
 The Hillsborough County School Board doesn't count Jesse's death as part of the series of student deaths within their jurisdiction, because the school involved was a charter school and the incident occurred at an after school hours event. So Jesse's death "doesn't count?" A Charter school is a public school and this was a school sponsored event. That means the school is within the jurisdiction and part of the county school system. 

In both the deaths of Isabella Herrera and Keith Coty, school staff notified parents instead of  immediately calling 911. The parents arrived, saw their children and only then was 911 called. So my question is, why do Hillsborough county public school staff not call 911 at the immediate onset of a medical emergency?

The most disturbing thing about these deaths is not just that they keep happening. It is headlines like this: 
Just click on the headline to read the story. So in the wake of all these deaths the superintendent is fired by the school board, then honored by the county commissioners. 

I don't understand this county. 

Keith Coty's parents' attorney,  Steven Maher, who happens to have also represented the Herrera family, is suing the county school system. The plaintiffs claim the district is discriminating against all 200,000-plus Hillsborough County students. 

I don't understand the silence of disability rights organizations about these deaths. I don't know why organizations whose mission is to advocate for students in general and students with disabilities in particular, were not up in arms about the policies and practices that resulted in these deaths. No amount of financial settlement can erase the loss of a child. No firing can eliminate the pattern of harm apparent here, particularly when the person fired is awarded by the county just after being fired. Most importantly, none of these young people had to die. Someone should care, not because there might be financial benefit but because these deaths are wrong and the lack of accountability for them is unjust.  

Something is very wrong in the Hillsborough County Public School system. 

What does the toll in innocent lives have to be to break the silence of the voice of justice?

In Memory of Isabella Herrera, Keith Coty, Jennifer Caballero, and Kadeem Jesse Shillingford. 

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