LAKELAND, Fla. (WFLA) – The Florida Board of Education voted unanimously Wednesday to require bus drivers and attendants to be certified in CPR and first aid, following an emotional plea from the parents of a teenager who died after a chaotic bus ride in Polk County.
“She was just a joy,” said her mother, Denise Williams. “She could go into a room and smile and bring out the best in you. She was bigger than life.”
Terissa Gautney, 14, had cerebral palsy.
Her parents say she made it through 57 surgeries in her young life. But it was a ride in a school bus that claimed her life in February 2018.
“The straps on her chair were not as snug as they should have been which caused her head to go too far back and she didn’t have the strength to correct it,” said David Gautney, Terisssa’s father.
She died from lack of oxygen.
Video from cameras onboard shows bus staff panicked. They never touched Gautney as she was gasping for air and used a radio to contact the district’s dispatch center.
“There was confusion between the folks that were contacting the district and the district as to what was happening. So there really wasn’t a clear communication as to what needed to be done and how it needed to be done,” said Lynn Wilson, chair of the Polk County school board.
“If they had just taken her out of the chair and been able to do CPR on her there on the bus so that emergency responders could get to her. Timing is everything and you only have minutes,” said David Gautney.
Gautney’s parents made emotional pleas to the Florida Board of Education Wednesday in Lakeland to require bus staff to be CPR and first aid certified.
“We know it’s not going to bring our daughter back but if it keeps one family from having to make the decision to take their child off of life support,” said Gautney through tears. “It’s worth it, every bit of this is worth it.”
The board voted unanimously to require bus staff to be certified in CPR and first aid by November 2020.
“The exact cost of such training, especially over time, is not yet known. The initial costs associated with such training could be approximately $75,000. However, no cost is too great, and we are committed to investing the proper resources to make this a reality. The safety of our students and staff members is the highest priority,” said Rob Davis, Polk County Public Schools assistant superintendent for support services in a statement.
Wilson, Polk County’s school board chair, calls Gautney’s death an incredibly tragic and painful. He said he encouraged her parents to continue coming to school board meetings to advocate for school bus safety measures.
However, HHAS concerns that the new training requirement is another unfunded mandate.
“Every time we do something like that, it’s money that we have to take away from someone else. So as we get mandates from the state to do those things, the question is where does the money come from? Because the state isn’t funding them,” he said.
Polk County is installing new radio systems in its more than 600 buses. The radios can connect bus drivers and attendants to emergency services.
“They can bypass the district completely,” said Wilson.
The project will cost more than $6 million-plus interest and yearly service fees, according to Polk County Public Schools.
Gautney’s parents want the radios installed in every bus in Florida and plan to head to Tallahassee to advocate for it becoming state law.
They call their efforts the “Terissa Joy Act.”
“It’s going to make a difference in someone’s life. It’s going to make a difference in our lives to deal with our grief and to know that she’s looking down on us and she’s happy with what we’re doing,” said David Gautney.