Eleven months after the death of Sessums Elementary School second-grader Bella Herrera, Katharine Bower of Riverview still tears up when she talks about the 7-year-old girl.
"She was so sweet. It just breaks my heart. She didn't have to die," said Bower, who joined other parents and concerned residents Thursday afternoon on the steps of the Hillsborough County School District headquarters to protest the deaths of two Riverview students while in the care of the school district.
Herrera, who had muscular dystrophy, died in January after she was found choking on a Hillsborough County school bus.
Her parents have filed a lawsuit against the school district, saying the girl, who was bound to a wheelchair, was not properly restrained to keep her head from moving while on the bus. As a result, she began choking.
The crisis was exacerbated when neither the bus aide nor bus driver called 911. Instead, the aide called the child's mother, Lisa Herrera, while the driver contacted the bus dispatch center when they saw the girl was in distress.
Lisa Herrera said, when she arrived, her daughter had been unconscious for some time. No one had given CPR or called 911. In their lawsuit, the Herreras contend that school bus drivers and aides are not adequately trained to deal with special-needs students.
Wearing a necklace containing a photo of Bella, Bower said her heart aches for the Herreras.
"My son was a friend of Bella's," she said. "I'm here to show support for the family."
Joe Robinson believes the school district is equally culpable in the death of Jenny Caballero, the 11-year-old Rodgers Middle School student with Down syndrome who wandered away from the school gym and drowned in a nearby pond last month.
"We need to be protecting students with disabilities," said Robinson. "Article IX of the Florida Constitution says we have a duty to provide a safe environment for all students. Yet the school board has failed to address the issue. And its policies and procedures are inadequate. This is nothing short of negligence."
"There just isn't proper training," said Ruskin resident Howard Scott, who has two special-needs children in Hillsborough County schools.
While the protesters spoke with reporters outside, the school board sat in a closed session to discuss the lawsuit filed by the Herreras.
The school board has declined to discuss the pending litigation. However, it did announce a policy change directing bus drivers and bus aides to call 911 during emergencies.
School board member April Griffin, who was never informed of Herrera's death, said it's a first step. The school board also called for a task force to look into the concerns regarding the care of special-needs students.
"I want people to treat the children in their charge as if they were their own children," said Griffin.
What do you think about the formation of a task force? Tell us in the comments section.