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Suit over death of Hillsborough special-needs student heads to settlement

TAMPA — A federal lawsuit that alleges discrimination led to the death of a special-needs schoolchild is headed for settlement in Hillsborough County.

On Friday, U.S. District Judge James S. Moody Jr. ordered all action stayed in the case that parents Lisa and Dennis Herrera brought against the Hillsborough County School Board. The two sides are to submit a joint status report within 30 days.

The Herreras, whose 7-year-old daughter Isabella died Jan. 26, 2012, sued the district, alleging a pattern of lax training and poor service resulted in the tragedy.

Isabella was riding home from Sessums Elementary School in Riverview, strapped in her wheelchair, when she had a respiratory attack. A neuromuscular condition made it hard for her to sit up straight, and her parents said she was not seated properly.

A bus video shows that instead of calling 911, the driver and aide tried to call a dispatch operator on the radio, which was the protocol. They had trouble getting through and eventually used a cellphone to call Lisa Herrera.

By the time Herrera arrived and called 911, more than 8 minutes had passed. Isabella was nonresponsive when she arrived at a hospital and pronounced dead the next day.

The school district said the suit alleged negligence and should be tried in state court, where monetary damages are limited under state law.

But the Herreras sought to prove Hillsborough's exceptional student education department had so many deficiencies it amounted to discrimination.

They cited other cases of disabled children who were injured or died, some dating back as far as 1999 and others taking place after Isabella's death.

Details of the tentative settlement were not disclosed in court records. School district attorney Tom Gonzalez declined to comment. Calls to the Herreras' two law firms were not returned.

After the deaths of Isabella and another special-needs child that same year, the district formed a workgroup that recommended dozens of safety improvements. A department-by-department review of these efforts is under way, superintendent MaryEllen Elia recently said.

In January, four trainers in the transportation department alleged special-needs children are still not safe on the buses and that workers are told not to document mistakes.

In the case of Isabella's death, the district could not produce any record of the incident. Nor was there documentation that the bus employees involved received any discipline. A spokesman for the district said officials viewed the video and concluded the two had done nothing wrong.

Marlene Sokol can be reached at sokol@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3356.

Suit over death of Hillsborough special-needs student heads to settlement 03/14/14 [Last modified: Friday, March 14, 2014 11:11pm]
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