LAKE WALES (FOX 13) - The father of a teenager with special needs who died following a medical episode on a Polk County school bus is calling for changes to state law that he hopes will prevent future deaths like this.
On February 28, Terissa Gautney, 14, suffered what police called a seizure while traveling from Bartow to Victory Ridge Academy in Lake Wales. Her father, David Gautney, disagrees and believes something caused her head to tilt back, cutting off her air supply.
Surveillance video from inside the bus shows the panicked driver and attendant struggling to figure out what to do while Terissa struggled to breathe.
"She was suffocating. They stood there and they watched my child die," David Gautney told FOX 13 Friday. "They stood there and they watched her suffocate and they did absolutely nothing!"
The driver and attendant called dispatch and eventually police were notified. The time elapsed between when Terissa's episode began and when paramedics arrived was 20 minutes. She died six days later.
"She changed my life forever and losing her is going to be a really long process to deal with," Gautney said.
Terissa's father is beginning his grieving process by pushing for, what he's calling, the Terissa Joy Act, which would make it a requirement for at least one person on a bus carrying students with special needs to be medically trained to handle an emergency situation.
"It's not going to bring my child back, but maybe it'll bring some change," he explained.
The bus driver, attendant and their boss told investigators they had no CPR training. A spokesperson for the school district, however, said they did have basic CPR training and just went through a refresher course in January. It's unclear why there is a discrepancy.
Mark Kamleiter, an attorney from St. Petersburg and advocate for children with special needs, said David Gautney's idea is more than reasonable.
"They're transporting very fragile kids, so it's even more necessary," Kamleiter said, adding staff on the bus should have known to adjust Terissa's head or lay her on her back. "The whole concept of having the person lay out flat so they're airways are open, that's not rocket science."
This situation feels very familiar to Kamleiter. In 2012, he helped the family of 7-year-old Isabella Herrera, who died after she stopped breathing on a Hillsborough County school bus.
"It's a tragedy and I just wonder how many times does this have to happen before we realize that that bus trip could be a very dangerous thing for some of our kids?" he said.
Terissa's father hopes this will be the last time.
"It's happened before and it's going to happen again and my child's life is worth more than that," he said. "Maybe the Tarissa Joy Act will become a reality and these kids will be safe the way they're supposed to be safe."
FOX 13 contacted several lawmakers from Polk County but, because the legislative session just ended, none could not be reached for comment.
A request to the Florida Department of Education to clarify the current requirements for bus staff was not immediately answered.