'Heartbroken' mother disputes account of daughter's death
BARTOW (FOX 13) - New reports released Thursday shed more light into the death of a Polk County student with special needs who passed away following a medical episode on a school bus.
The mother of Terissa Gautney, 14, shared with FOX 13 a detailed timeline of how the events of Feb. 28 unfolded on the bus and a subsequent medical report from paramedics.
"That [timeline] breakdown made me think she really suffered and it just, it kills me," said Terissa's mother, Denise Williams.
In her first interview following her daughter's death, Williams explained how difficult the last month has been for her and her family.
"I love her so much. I miss her and I just hope she's OK. I miss her a lot. She was my life," she said.
On Feb. 28, Terissa, who had Cerebral palsy, suffered what the bus driver described to dispatch as a seizure while traveling from Bartow to Victory Ridge Academy in Lake Wales.
A medical report from emergency responders with Polk County Fire Rescue, however, never mentions a seizure. Terissa's mother believes that's because her daughter didn't have one.
"She didn't have a seizure. That was her moving her arms to try to straighten herself out," Williams said.
Williams, along with Terissa's father, David Gautney, believe something caused the teenager's head to tilt back, cutting off her air supply. She didn't have the strength to pick her head back up.
Surveillance video from the bus lines up with the thorough timeline now in Williams' possession. The video shows Terissa's head falling backward at 7:08 a.m. Three minutes go by before the bus attendant notices.
"Terissa! Terissa!" the bus attendant can be heard shouting. "She's gasping for air!"
The driver first calls the district's dispatch, not 911, and tells the dispatcher it appears Terissa is having a seizure.
During the next several minutes, panicked bus staff can be heard on the video discussing how to handle the emergency, both clearly unsure whether they are allowed to touch Terissa. Neither employee ever does touch the teenager and a total of 10 minutes go by before dispatch calls 911.
"Nobody really wanted to help her, put her head up, anything like that," Williams said. "If they would have gone and put her head up, she probably would have been fine."
Another eight minutes went by before an ambulance arrives. In that time, Terissa remained untouched.
The medical report indicates Terissa suffered cardiac arrest due to a lack of oxygen. She died several days later.
"It was just all the time went by and nobody did anything to help her," her mother told FOX 13. "It's just been tough. I'm up and down and I have my bad days and good days."
Rachel Pleasant, a spokesperson for Polk County Schools, told FOX 13 she isn't sure of the employment status of the bus driver and attendant because it's spring break. She added in an email, "we ask our drivers to call 911 in the event of an emergency or alert dispatch if they are unable to call 911 themselves."
It's unclear if the district has a policy preventing bus staff from touching students, even during emergencies.
Terissa's parents are now pushing for, what they call, the "Terissa Joy Act," which would require at least one person on a bus carrying students with special needs to be trained to handle a situation like this.