Often referring to her own experience as a 45-year teacher and administrator, New York’s new education commissioner delivered a simultaneously supportive and tough message to district leaders and parents from some of New York’s worst schools on Wednesday: Fix the schools, or the state will step in and do it.
“One of the things that we can’t do is ignore the situation,” Elia said during a speech at the conference Wednesday evening. “We can’t go any longer—and I won't go any longer—and ignore the situation in New York, where we have persistently struggling schools or struggling schools without making the kinds of necessary changes that are allowed under this legislation.”
“I am going to be intimately involved in saying, I believe schools and districts are legitimately working on making these necessary changes,” she said. “But in the converse, if I don’t see that, I will be intimately involved in your school districts. Because we can’t allow students to move forward without the supports they need for success.”
This tough talk stuff is meant to make her come across as competent and in charge, it's meant to scare local districts into going to the max with what the receivership law allows, it's meant to let districts know that an activist commissioner is in Albany.
Alas, if only MaryEllen Elia had been so competent, in charge and activist when children died under her watch in the Hillsborough school district and Elia did nothing to fix the problems except try and hide them.
As such, I'm going to run a previous post from May 28 about Elia's complicity in and cover-up of the deaths of three children in the Hillsborough school district and ask our intrepid new NYSED Commissioner why she wasn't "intimately involved" in fixing the problems that led to the first student's death so that subsequent students didn't have to die too:
Complicity And Cover-Up: MaryEllen Elia's Failure Of Leadership In The Deaths Of Hillsborough StudentsThe tragic stories of Isabella Herrera, a 7 year old who died in 2012 while on a Hillsborough school bus, and Keith Logan Coty, a 6 year old who died of a brain hemorrhage in 2014 after getting sick at his school, suggest the kind of leadership we'll get from new NYSED commissioner MaryEllen Elia.
Then Hillsborough superintendent, Elia never took responsibility for the failure of district personnel to call 911 in a timely manner when Isabellea Herrera was found unresponsive on a Hillsborough school bus.
In fact, Elia did all she could to deflect responsibility from herself and the district and cover-up district complicity in the child's death because of an outdated policy that had school bus drivers call dispatchers instead of 911 in an emergency.
As Joe Henderson of the Tampa Tribune wrote, if not for a lawsuit from the Herrera family, the circumstances of the girl's death - a direct consequence of school district policy continued under Elia - would not have come to light:
For all the community outrage over circumstances that contributed to the death of 7-year-old special-needs student Isabella Herrera, consider this: If her parents hadn't filed a federal lawsuit over the way her case was handled, the public still wouldn't know there was ever a problem.There wouldn't be a task force to study ongoing problems with how issues with special-needs students are addressed.
School bus drivers would continue to follow the 21-year-old policy of calling dispatchers instead of 911 in an emergency such as the one that led to Isabella's death.
Six of seven members of the Hillsborough County School Board would still be in the dark about what happened that January day on the bus taking Isabella home from classes.
Life would go on just always. Except, of course, for Isabella and her family.
She had a neuromuscular disease that made her neck muscles weak. She was supposed to have her head back as she sat in her wheelchair, but she tilted forward and it blocked her airway. When it was discovered, the driver called dispatch and the aide on board called Isabella's mother.
By the time Lisa Herrera arrived and dialed 911 herself, her daughter was blue and unresponsive. She was pronounced dead the next day.
But Superintendent MaryEllen Elia didn't make the news public. She relied on a sheriff's office investigation that she said found no criminal wrongdoing, and appeared to let it go at that. During an interview last week, I asked why she didn't release the news. She fell back on the sheriff's report.If you're the parent of a special-needs student, though, you would have liked to know there was a problem. I should say, is a problem. There have been three other issues with special-needs kids just this year, including the recent death of a student with Down syndrome who wandered away unnoticed and drowned.
The Herrera family filed its lawsuit a few days after that — about nine months after Isabella died. Now we have a task force, and a policy change allowing bus drivers to call 911 if the situation warrants. As school board Vice Chairwoman April Griffin told The Tampa Tribune though, "It goes way, way deeper than that. But I think it's a start."
This would be a better start: Expand the task force to probe the circumstances of why it took a lawsuit to bring this to a head. This isn't a witch hunt, but there has to be accountability.
What happened in the aftermath of this tragedy was at best a case of bureaucratic bungling.
When a child dies, a leader doesn't fall back on official reports and policy excuses. A leader gets to the bottom of things and then lets everyone know what went wrong so it doesn't happen again. A leader asks uncomfortable questions about the culture in a school system that values policy and procedure over good judgment and common sense.That didn't happen here. And if not for a lawsuit, no one would have known.
Two years later, another child died after Hillsborough school staff failed to call 911 in a timely manner:
TAMPA — Keith Logan Coty played baseball, soccer and football. He was a principal's honor roll student in the first grade at Seminole Heights Elementary School, his mother said.
He'd had a heart murmur, but the doctor had cleared him, his mother said.
He died a year ago at age 6 of a brain hemorrhage, and a lawsuit filed Friday blames staff at his school for failing to call for help quickly enough. The lapse is especially unfathomable, lawyers say, as the issue of timely 911 calls was cited in another high-profile student death in a Hillsborough public school.
"How many kids under the care of this school district must die before the district gets it right?" lawyer Steven Maher asked, announcing the federal suit in a news conference Friday.
Exactly a year ago — Jan. 17, 2014 — Keith began feeling sick after lunch, the suit says. He went back to his classroom about 12:24 p.m., complaining to his teacher about a severe headache. She told him to lie down. He did. Then he started vomiting.
About 12:51, the teacher called Keith's mother, Kaycee Teets. There was no sense of urgency in the voice mail message she left, which Maher played at the news conference. It simply asked Teets to pick up her son because he was throwing up.
Before Teets could arrive, another school employee entered the room and found Keith lying on his side, making a gurgling sound with foam streaming from his nose. "His lips were blue," the suit said. The school nurse was summoned. Although Keith was unresponsive, the suit alleges the nurse did not perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation; nor did she use the defibrillator at the school.
About 12:58 p.m., a worker in the front office called 911. The information given to the 911 operator was confusing, the suit alleges. At one point the caller said Keith was breathing. His mother insists he was not.
When an emergency vehicle arrived at 1:03 p.m., Keith was "in the corner, visibly blue, not breathing, and unresponsive." Paramedics were able to resuscitate the child, and they took him to St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa.
A scan revealed he had a brain hemorrhage. But, according to the suit, no one told the doctors about his headache, information Teets learned hours later when she spoke with Keith's teacher. Not suspecting a neurological problem, doctors focused on possible cardiac issues instead.
Keith "went without oxygen for at least 10 minutes as a result of the delay in commencing CPR," the suit alleges. He stayed on life support long enough for his organs to be taken for donation, and he was pronounced dead later in the day.
The suit, filed days before Superintendent MaryEllen Elia could face a School Board vote on terminating her contract, is reminiscent of a suit the same firm filed in 2012, also involving a child alleged to have died after emergency treatment was delayed.
Isabella Herrera suffered a neuromuscular disability and was on a school bus when she stopped breathing. No one called 911 until Isabella's mother arrived. The school district ultimately settled that lawsuit for $800,000.
The Herrera suit was filed in federal court, alleging a civil rights violation; rather than a negligence suit in state court, where the award would have been limited under sovereign immunity. Maher was trying to prove a districtwide lack of training and care so severe, it amounted to a level of indifference toward disabled students that qualified as discrimination.
This time, Maher said, the 911 policy and procedures amount to discrimination toward all of Hillsborough's 200,000 students.
The district argued in the 2012 suit that there was no pattern of indifference. And, after the drowning death of a second special-needs child that same year, Hillsborough revamped its training of staff, particularly those who care for disabled children.
But 911 calls have remained a source of confusion. While Elia quickly stated there is no prohibition against calling 911, administrators sometimes advise staff to let the front office make the calls. Phone service is not always reliable in the classrooms, they say, and it's easier for emergency workers to find the office than a particular classroom.
Maher and Teets said that makes no sense to them.
"I would call 911. There would be no question," Teets said. "Any person would do that. I walked into a classroom and found my child, blue on the ground."
Stephen Hegarty, the district's spokesman, said, "I cannot comment on pending litigation."
Maher said his firm is asking for monetary damages, but did not specify the amount.
Where are the great leadership qualities Elia supposedly has in the aftermath of these tragedies involving Hillsborough students?
If one student dies as a result of the failure of staff to call 911 in a timely manner, wouldn't you think a "great leader" would put together an effective protocol so that such a tragedy wouldn't happen a second time?
Elia instead did her best to cover up the circumstances surrounding Isabella Herrera's death - something that was noted when Elia was feted with a commendation by the Tampa Bay City Council after she was fired as Hillsborough superintendent.
Mary Mulhern, a council member who voted against the commendation for Elia, told the Tampa Tribune:
"MaryEllen Elia was fired by her employers — by her boss, the School Board," she said. "I can't think of another case where someone gets lauded and celebrated after they've been fired from a job that is a public responsibility. … When you are responsible for the lives of children, I think one strike is too many."
Elaborating, Mulhern cited the deaths of three students:
• 7-year-old disabled student Isabella Herrera, who died in January 2012 after suffering respiratory failure aboard a school bus. A bus video show that the driver and an aide did not call 911, but used a radio to try to reach their supervisor, as was protocol, then called Herrera's mother, who arrived and called 911. The School Board, most of whose members were unaware of the death until the girl's parents sued, agreed to pay $800,000 last year to settle a federal lawsuit.
• 11-year-old Jennifer Caballero, who had Down syndrome and drowned in a pond behind Rodgers Middle School after wandering away from a crowded gym class in October 2012. The school district agreed to pay a negotiated settlement estimated at more than $500,000. Investigations led to three firings and several resignations at the school. The district also took steps after the deaths to improve safety for special-needs students on buses and in school.
• 6-year-old Keith Logan Coty, who died a day after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage in January 2014 at Seminole Heights Elementary School. In a lawsuit, his parents accuse the school district of being indifferent to student safety and of discouraging staffers from calling 911 in emergencies. The district denies the allegations.
"If somebody dies, it goes to the top," Mulhern said. In the Herrera case, she said, "her employers didn't know this happened for nine months. … For me, that's enough. That's three strikes."
Mulhern said she didn't "disagree that (Elia has) done very good work over 10 years," but the concerns about student safety were overriding for her.
"The powers that be in Tampa and Hillsborough County just circled the wagons around this powerful person," who, Mulhern noted, had the authority to give out contracts.
Say what you will about former NYSED commissioner John King's flaws as a leader - covering up district complicity in the death of a student and a failure to fix emergency protocol for 911 calls involving students weren't on the list.
The more you learn about MaryEllen Elia and her "leadership," the more you see the big mistake the Board of Regents made by hiring her as NYSED commissioner.
Also, the more you learn about Elia as a person, the more you see how appropriate her nickname - MaryEllen EVILia - is.
MaryEllen Elia should have been "intimately involved" in fixing the 911 protocol after the Herrera death.
Alas, she covered up the death instead, keeping the news from six of the seven school board members, and tried to evade responsibility for the matter by relying on the sheriff's report that there was no criminal wrongdoing in the case.
Elia didn't change the protocols for how Hillsborough staff took care of the safety of special needs students until after the death of a second child, Jennifer Caballero, in the wading pool.
It took the death of a third child, Keith Logan Coty, before she finally addressed the 911 protocols.
Considering her failure of leadership and humanity in the deaths of these three children while she was superintendent of Hillsborough, how dare MaryEllen Elia lecture anybody about anything?
There were plenty of opportunities for her to be "intimately involved" in changing the way Hillsborough staff handled safety issues for special needs students or 911 protocols and Elia did nothing but hide the district's complicity in these deaths and try and evade responsibility for herself.
Finally, how dare the Board of Regents hire somebody with this kind of track record on safety issues for children under her care - not just the incompetence and bungling of the safety issues but the willful covering-up of district complicity afterwards?