Sunday, October 14, 2018
Education

Lawsuit: Child died because Hillsborough school waited too long to call 911

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.

Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected] Follow @marlenesokol.

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