TAMPA — The Hillsborough School District's special education safety work group, formed in the wake of two student deaths, has been expanded and given more time to report its findings.
The panel, which now includes three teachers, has met four times and hopes to meet with a team later this month from the Council of the Great City Schools to review its initial results, district spokeswoman Linda Cobbe said.
The Superintendent's Exceptional Student Education (ESE) Advisory Council, which includes parents, also is expected to offer input.
In early December, Cobbe said, members of the work group will discuss their findings with transportation staff, teachers, school administrators, and teacher's aides.
The goal is to have a report ready by the next School Board meeting on Dec. 11.
Critics had said the original group, consisting almost entirely of top administrators, might not be objective enough to identify shortcomings in the system. ESE parent Craig Collette called it "the fox guarding the henhouse."
But Collette was encouraged when he learned Friday that the three added teachers include one from Maniscalco Elementary School, which his son used to attend.
"Adding Kourtney Barnum is a move in the right direction," Collette said. "She is devoted to children and not a district person. She will defend children to the end."
Cobbe said the changes did not come in response to criticism, but reflected a logical evolution of the project. "This has been a work in progress," she said.
ESE, which serves 29,000 students including 4,000 in special classes, is under intense scrutiny since news last month of two student deaths.
Jennifer Caballero, an 11-year-old with Down syndrome, drowned in a pond behind Rodgers Middle School after wandering away from gym class. Isabella Herrera, a 7-year-old with a neuromuscular disorder, went into respiratory distress on a school bus in January and neither the driver nor the aide called 911. The public and some School Board members did not know about Isabella's death until her parents filed a federal lawsuit in October.
The two situations have led to spirited discussions on the School Board and strong reactions among advocates for special-needs children. One group is organizing a protest at the Hillsborough Children's Board building at 2 p.m. on Nov. 29.
Coinciding with the work group study, the district's Office of Professional Standards is investigating Jennifer's disappearance and death. Five teachers' aides at Rodgers are on paid leave pending the outcome.
Earlier this week, incoming School Board chairwoman April Griffin said she wants to look beyond the five aides and hold others accountable if necessary.
Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or firstname.lastname@example.org.