Thursday, April 26, 2018
Education

Hillsborough school superintendent did not know about child's death for months

TAMPA — Hillsborough County school superintendent MaryEllen Elia says she did not learn about the controversial death of Isabella Herrera until nine months after it happened, according to legal documents released Wednesday.

Yet other top district officials knew about it shortly after Herrera died on Jan. 26, 2012. And attorneys for the girl's family sent multiple letters to the district before holding a news conference to announce a lawsuit against Hillsborough schools.

Elia told lawyers during a deposition that the November 2012 news conference, outside district headquarters, was the first she knew that a seven-year-old special-needs student had died a day after she stopped breathing aboard a school bus.

District officials made the deposition and other legal documents available after an $800,000 settlement, signed Tuesday, ended the Herreras' federal lawsuit. The records offered a glimpse of how the child's death was handled internally by the district.

John Franklin, the district's head of transportation, knew about the death soon after it happened. His boss, the former facilities chief who is now a deputy superintendent, reportedly knew.

So did the staff at Sessums Elementary School, where Isabella was enrolled. Attorneys for the school district knew. Certified letters were sent. A court order was issued to get a video from the bus that showed two employees tried to radio for help but did not call 911.

At one point in a sworn statement taken on Oct. 29, 2013, the Herreras' attorney asked Elia: "You were the superintendent in February of 2012; is that right?"

"Oh, absolutely, right," Elia answered.

The suit alleged inadequate treatment of special-needs students that amounted to discrimination. The district argued, and still contends, that there is no discrimination, and the suit belonged in state court as a negligence case.

What's more, schools attorney Tom Gonzalez said Wednesday, doctors determined Isabella died of natural causes. A degenerative neuromuscular condition robbed her of a cough reflex, and she had been battling a cold and sinus infection.

In the weeks after her death, Gonzalez said, school employees pulled together to comfort the family, not anticipating allegations of wrongdoing.

"This was described as a situation of a tragic death of a child who had a debilitating and deteriorating condition that was going downhill," Gonzalez said.

Letters from the lawyers would have been handled by the district's risk management program and attorney instead of the superintendent, he said. There was no "intent to sue" letter, which is required in state suits, because this one was federal.

Had the case gone to trial, the statements released Wednesday suggest it would have rested heavily on the district's 2008 hiring of Joyce Wieland as general director of exceptional student education.

A successful elementary principal, Wieland was not state-certified in ESE. After the death of Isabella and another special-needs student that year, Wieland took a lateral transfer to the district's choice office.

In the sworn statements, lawyer Dan Cotter questioned Elia and School Board members extensively about their hiring of Wieland.

He also grilled board members on the issue of why so many of them were not told of Isabella's death in the months preceding the lawsuit. "Just wondering how that can be?" he asked April Griffin, who became chairwoman shortly after the suit was filed.

Griffin said she didn't know.

"Were you aware that the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office requested a copy of the bus video regarding the Herrera incident shortly after it happened?"

"I am now," Griffin said.

Griffin said she also did not learn until much later that Franklin, the transportation chief, had insisted he needed a subpoena before releasing the video. She said she only found out later that several top district officials — including then-facilities chief Cathy Valdes and security chief David Friedberg — were sent copies of the subpoena.

"Despite all these people being aware of this incident, do you consider it shocking that nobody insisted on a formal report or investigation of Isabella's death?" Cotter asked.

Gonzalez objected to the form of the question. Cotter rephrased it slightly.

Griffin answered, "I believe there should have been an investigation."

Candy Olson, who was chairwoman when Isabella died, said she had known for some time about the girl's death. But she could not recall where she had heard the news.

Elia did not rule out the possibility that someone mentioned it in the nine months before the lawsuit. "It is possible that someone could have said something to me," she told Cotter. "But I don't have a recollection of it at all."

At a news conference Tuesday, Gonzalez acknowledged he knew about the early offers to mediate the case.

"The board was always willing to mediate," he said. He later clarified that the district gets many legal claims, and at the very early stages of a case, School Board members are not necessarily consulted.

"The issue was, the School Board insisted this was not a federal constitutional claim and was willing to mediate it in the context of what it was, which was an allegation of negligence," Gonzalez said.

Marlene Sokol can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3356.

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