Wednesday, February 21, 2018
Education

Parents of student who died thank Hillsborough school district for safety improvements

TAMPA — Seeking some form of closure in the aftermath of a student's death, the family of Jennifer Caballero thanked the Hillsborough County school district Tuesday for improving safety for special-needs children.

In a rare public appearance since Jennifer, an 11-year-old with Down syndrome, drowned behind Rodgers Middle School in Riverview on Oct. 22, 2012, Tarsicio Caballero-Perez and Elizabeth Rosas faced reporters in the Adams and Diaco law office. Hours earlier, the School Board approved a settlement worth an estimated $600,000.

They declined to answer any questions, but sat solemnly as a translator read a prepared statement in English and Spanish.

"Our goal from the beginning was to prevent this from ever happening to another family in our community again," the statement said.

"The superintendent took immediate action after Jenny was lost, and we appreciate all of the changes and improvements that have been implemented in honor of our daughter's memory."

Shortly after Jennifer wandered away from a crowded physical education class and died in a pond behind the school, it was revealed that Isabella Herrera, a 7-year-old with a neuromuscular disorder, had died earlier in the year after a choking episode on a school bus.

Shaken by the two events, the district established a work group to identify and correct safety deficiencies in exceptional student education. Weaknesses were identified in the transportation department, in the pay scales and training requirements of classroom aides who work in exceptional student education, and in the record-keeping required to alert staff to students' medical needs.

Training has since been increased for the aides, there are new reporting procedures when accidents happen, and the district is working to create career paths that will help promising aides become teachers. An effort also has been made to standardize emergency response and create a climate where all employees feel responsible for all children.

But attorney Stephen Diaco acknowledged these are just initial steps, and the effort must be ongoing.

"We were really pleased that the School Board and MaryEllen (Elia) took the approach that they can never do enough," said Diaco, whose firm represented the family for free.

Diaco spoke and Jennifer's parents issued the statement after the board agreed to pay the family lifetime benefits estimated at roughly $600,000. In exchange, the family will not sue.

The couple were accompanied by Jennifer's two sisters: Lorena, 20, and Elizabeth, 15, described by Diaco as straight-A students with aspirations in law and medicine.

"They have been living the American dream, and the dream was shattered with the loss of Jenny," Diaco said.

"And so what's so important is that her legacy is the safety of our children going forward, especially in the ESE programs."

The Herrera family, meanwhile, has a lawsuit pending in U.S. District Court.

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

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