Hillsborough parents allege special-ed teacher let child fall head-first from ceiling

Published Feb. 12, 2013

PLANT CITY — Jacob Coker climbed into a suspended ceiling one day in 2009 at Robinson Elementary School, but his teacher couldn't climb after him because of a bad back.

Two exceptional student education aides in the room were not trained to get the boy down, according to a lawsuit filed by Jacob's parents. One left to get help. The teacher left too. The second aide was on the telephone when the ceiling collapsed and Jacob fell, head-first, to the floor.

The suit, filed on Jan. 29 in Hillsborough Circuit Court, asks for unspecified damages from the Hillsborough County School District and teacher Elsa Leon.

"Of course, we cannot comment on a pending lawsuit," said Stephen Hegarty, the district's spokesman. He said Leon left the district in 2009. She could not be reached for comment.

The Cokers allege the accident happened as Leon was trying to take the class to lunch.

According to the suit, Jacob was having his medication adjusted for hyperactivity. He climbed onto a cabinet and into the ceiling. Even though Leon knew Jacob was in the ceiling, the suit says, she proceeded to take the kids to lunch, leaving the boy in the care of two aides who were not trained in child restraint techniques.

When the ceiling collapsed and Jacob fell, the suit says, he suffered "catastrophic and life threatening head injuries."

Suits against school districts generally are subject to sovereign immunity, a doctrine that limits awards and can make it hard for plaintiffs to hire attorneys.

But the Cokers' attorney is trying to get around sovereign immunity by arguing that Robinson, which provides a large array of ESE services, is not just a school but also a "therapeutic and childcare facility."

Attorney Gene Odom also contends Leon is "more appropriately characterized as an independent contractor of the school system" than a school employee, and so he is suing her individually.

• • •

A separate special-needs suit on behalf of the late Isabella Herrera, who stopped breathing while riding on a school bus last year, was filed in federal court as a discrimination case. Such cases also are not subject to sovereign immunity.

The district is arguing that the Herreras should have filed a negligence suit, and they are seeking to have the federal case dismissed.

But the Herreras' lawyers are trying to prove that the district's treatment of disabled students shows a level of indifference that amounts to discrimination.

The district, which has been under scrutiny in its ESE programs since the October drowning of student Jennifer Caballero, anticipates or is involved in other legal disputes as well. According to a list schools attorney Tom Gonzalez gave the School Board recently:

• A 13-year-old special-needs child was sexually assaulted multiple times on a school bus, her parents allege. That suit is pending.

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• A child allegedly broke her ankle after she was kicked off an ESE bus. The family has requested the bus video.

• A 19-year-old student who broke her ankle while running away has requested her student file.

• A guardian alleges teachers tied an ESE student to a desk with coaxial cable. That case also is pending.

Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or