Wednesday, December 13, 2017
Public safety

Parents of autistic girl kicked off bus sue Hillsborough schools

TAMPA — One year after school bus driver Stephanie Wilkerson was accused of kicking an 8-year-old autistic girl down a flight of bus stairs, the girl's parents are suing the Hillsborough County school district and School Board.

Kyinesha Johnson broke her ankle in the fall and couldn't walk for nearly two months, her parents say. In a lawsuit filed in Hillsborough Circuit Court last week, Curtis and Margaret Johnson blame a lack of training and supervision of the district's special-needs employees.

They list other incidents that have plagued the county's exceptional student education program, including the 2012 deaths of 7-year-old Isabella Herrera, who had a neuromuscular disorder and died after she stopped breathing on a school bus, and Jennifer Caballero, an 11-year-old with Down syndrome who wandered away from her gym class at Rodgers Middle School in Riverview and drowned in a pond.

"The school board and school district engaged in an ongoing pattern, practice and custom of failing to ensure the safety and well-being of ESE students," the civil complaint says. Wilkerson's actions were "egregious" and "shock the conscience," it says. The Johnsons are seeking damages of at least $15,000.

On Sept. 28, 2012, Wilkerson urged the 8-year-old girl to get off the bus, but Kyinesha was having trouble following directions because of her disability, the suit says. She just stood in the stairwell. Her pause was captured on the bus' surveillance video, released by prosecutors in March.

The video shows Wilkerson pushing the girl, causing her to fall to the ground outside Tampa Bay Boulevard Elementary School in Tampa. At the hospital, a doctor said the girl had a sprained ankle.

However, a few days later, the girl complained of pain and refused to walk. A different doctor said she had fractured her ankle.

The lawsuit says that Kyinesha was unable to walk for nearly two months. She either used a wheelchair or crawled.

Wilkerson was immediately suspended, then fired. She was also charged with aggravated child abuse.

School district spokesman Stephen Hegarty declined to comment this week because of the open litigation. But in the past, he has called Wilkerson's actions "completely unacceptable." Also, the district has contended it is not responsible for what it considers an "intentional act."

A school district attorney has cited a state law that says the government is not liable if an employee acts "in bad faith or with malicious purpose or in a manner exhibiting wanton and willful disregard of human rights, safety or property."

The school district has not formally replied to the complaint.

Wilkerson's criminal trial is scheduled to begin March 24.

Times staff writer Marlene Sokol contributed to this report. Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3433.

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