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Florida Tragedies Highlight Training Need

The accidental deaths of two special needs students from Hillsborough County Public Schools in Tampa, Fla. this year are shedding light on the need for comprehensive, mandatory emergency preparedness training for paraeducators.

In October, 11-year-old Jennifer Caballero, a middle school student with Down syndrome, was found hiding under the bleachers during gym class by a coach, who two weeks earlier had complained to the assistant principal that the exceptional student education (ESE) aides were inattentive. The coach brought her to the aides, and asked them to keep an eye on her. But she managed to leave the gym unsupervised and climb a four-foot fence surrounding a pond on school property, where, according to a sheriff’s report cited in the Tampa Bay Times, she was discovered drowned five hours later.

In January, 7-year-old Isabella Herrera, who suffered from a neuromuscular disorder, wasn’t properly stabilized in her wheelchair on a bus, and suffered respiratory distress. Though a call was placed to bus dispatchers, neither her aide nor the bus driver called 911 or performed CPR, according to Steve Hegarty, communications officer at Hillsborough County Public Schools. The child died in the hospital the next day.

Both children were under the supervision of ESE aides, some of whom later told sheriffs they were unfamiliar with the school’s emergency procedures. Criminal charges were not filed, but the five aides who were supervising Caballero’s class were suspended, Hegarty says.

“One of the issues we have with training is that it is not required,” Hegarty says. “We offer it, and pay for people to go, and most do, including a number of those involved in these incidents. But it is not required.” It is a district decision whether or not to mandate training, he adds.

Hillsborough County is the eighth largest district in the United States and serves 29,000 students with disabilities, representing about 15 percent of the student body. While an optional formal training is offered annually, paraeducators are otherwise supposed to receive informal training and daily guidance from their supervising teacher, Hegarty says.

In the wake of the latest incident, Hillsborough Superintendent MaryEllen Elia appointed a work group of educators to examine district issues such as staff training and fence heights in an effort to better protect students. On Nov. 30, they reported their initial findings, with 26 recommendations to improve student safety. These recommendations include:

-Mandating a consistent, formal training for paraeducators and teachers.

-Ensuring that bus drivers and paraeducators know about children’s medical conditions.

-Preparing a simplified Medical Emergency Checklist that encourages staff to call 911.

-Creating a specific procedural checklist for students who run away from their supervising staff and may be in danger.

The district faces challenges finding quality applicants to fill ESE positions, the report also states, and should develop methods to better recruit and incentivize employees, including bonus pay for those who assist at-risk and medically fragile students.

Ritu Chopra, executive director of the Paraprofessional Research and Resource Center at the University of Colorado Denver, highlights the need to hold districts as well as paraeducators accountable when accidents like these occur. “It’s not a failure alone on the part of the paraeducators, but on the district, that those kids died,” Chopra says. “We need to reflect: if they were not trained, was it their fault?”

Lack of Training

Paraeducators, who work with students who may be severely disabled and medically fragile, are typically among a district’s least prepared staff. Less than half of school districts nationwide offer paraeducator training, according to a survey from the National Resource Center for Paraeducators.

“Every paraprofessional, irrespective of who they are working with—be it students with special needs, language needs, or minor learning disabilities—must have basic skills, and some kind of orientation about how to provide services to students, focusing on teamwork, collaboration, what their role is and that of the teacher, instructional strategies, behavior management strategies, and safety procedures” as part of their training, says Chopra.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is the federal legislation providing special education services for children with special needs, and it mandates training and supervision for paraeducator roles and responsibilities. However, it is weak and lacks specificity, especially when it trickles down to the district level where the decisions are made, Chopra says. “The federal law says paraprofessionals need to be adequately prepared and appropriately trained, but doesn’t define that,” she says. “The training is definitely lacking.”

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay for a paraeducator in 2010 was $23,220. The lowest 10 percent earned an average of $16,510, and the top 10 percent earned an average of $36,130, with salaries varying depending on the type of organization. The bureau predicts that the field of education will grow by 10 percent through 2016, and create 137,000 new paraeducator jobs.

As more schools move toward inclusion models, the American Association of School Administrators also advocates for increased staff training to avoid tragedies like the ones in Hillsborough County. “Whereas inclusion is providing youngsters with a wonderful opportunity to become part of the mainstream education system, along with it comes major responsibility,” says Daniel Domenech, AASA’s executive director. “It is imperative that staff be properly trained so these students are not harming themselves or others.”

“With the economic downturn, there has been a significant cutback in training activities,” he adds. “Administrators have to provide the training, but to provide the training, they have to have the resources,” in terms of money and time.

The Role of Supervision

Supervision, or observation from a teacher or licensed professional, is a large factor in creating successful paraeducators, and requires day-to-day guidance and planning from teachers, orienting paraeducators to policies and procedures and safety intervention plans. It is more than just signing an evaluation form, says Chopra. Paraeducators are supposed to work directly with a teacher or licensed professional, but many end up working independently, trying to learn on their own without formal training, she adds.

Some states, such as Minnesota and Rhode Island, have developed standards for paraprofessionals, focusing on skill competencies, collaboration, classroom management, and behavioral management practices, says Marilyn Likins, director of the National Resource Center for Paraeducators. All of these skills must be performed under the direction of a supervising teacher.

“The only way that we know paraeducators are doing their job well is to have teachers and administrators who are trained to supervise them,” says Likins. “Many times, our districts and states don’t train teachers in supervisory skills.”

There are many training programs available for paraprofessionals, as well as for teachers and administrators to gain supervisory skills, Likins says. It’s often a lack of awareness that leads to accidents, she adds: “Until you have a tragedy happen, many times local administrators aren’t aware of their responsibilities pertaining to that, because they have so many other things on their plate.”

A National Scale

Accidents involving special-needs students who are under the supervision of paraeducators or bus drivers are not isolated, according to a November ABC News investigation. Nationwide, thousands of special-needs students have been injured and dozens have died after being restrained by poorly trained aides and teachers who tried to subdue them, the investigation found. Since most public schools provide little or no training on how to intervene when a student misbehaves, and there are no national standards, administrators use a wide array of methods, the report states. In April, 16-year-old Corey Foster, a student at a special-needs facility in Yonkers, N.Y., was held face down by staff for allegedly refusing to leave a basketball court, according to the ABC report. An autopsy ruled his death an accident, the report stating he suffered “cardiac arrest during an excited state while being subdued.” No criminal charges were filed.


-In December 2010, a 6-year-old special-needs student in Baltimore died in the hospital two days after jumping from the back door of a moving school bus. The boy’s mother filed a lawsuit last August accusing his private special education school and bus personnel of failing to ensure the safety of her emotionally disturbed son, who had made similar attempts previously. According to The Baltimore Sun, the lawsuit states that her son’s Individualized Education Plan requiring him to wear a safety vest on the bus was not being implemented, and that neither the driver nor the two aides on the bus tried to stop him from jumping.

Though drivers are trained to stop the bus whenever a student is disruptive or not seated, this policy was not written into the Baltimore County school’s transportation manual, though it was added the month after the accident, city school officials reported in The Baltimore Sun. The bus driver’s license was revoked, and the two aides’ certifications were suspended. At a Baltimore City Council hearing held shortly after the incident, a disability attorney who reviewed the school system’s operating procedures reported that while the school had extensive policies on managing medically and physically fragile students, there were none for emotionally fragile students, who make up the majority of those who are transported.

-In 2008, a 9-year-old special education student with physical and mental disabilities in Detroit died of seizures after an aide pushed her and forced her to walk unassisted, despite the child’s balance issues, according to a lawsuit filed by her family cited on CBS News. In May, the Detroit Public Schools settled the lawsuit for $425,000, and the aide is no longer employed by the district, a district spokesman reported.

Back in Hillsborough County, once the work group finalizes their recommendations with input from educators, aides, parents, and community members, the school will begin developing a new system for paraeducator training, Hegarty says. “There’s nothing you can do to completely guarantee that you’re not going to have an incident,” he adds. “We’re putting some things in place that will help us to improve the odds and avoid future problems.”

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