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Riverview parents sue school district over daughter's death

Published:   |   Updated: March 13, 2013 at 11:28 PM

Lisa and Dennis Herrera trusted the school district to take care of their 7-year-old special needs daughter — the one who adored the color pink and wanted to become a professional singer one day.

They never dreamed Isabella’s short life would come to a tragic end after an incident that began on a school bus on the way home from Sessums Elementary on a Wednesday afternoon in January.

"She was a 7-year-old girl who loved life and wanted to live it," Lisa Herrera said Thursday morning in her attorney’s office in downtown Tampa. "I miss her so much."

To Dennis Herrera, Bella was a hero.

Diagnosed with a neuromuscular disorder that limited her mobility, she was described as a bright girl who loved school and wanted to be in regular classes. She longed to ride the school bus and be independent like other kids, her parents said.

It was that desire — to be like everyone else — that ultimately led to her death, they say.

Workers with the Hillsborough County School District failed to properly tilt her wheelchair back on the bus that day in January to prevent her head from falling forward, cutting off her supply of air, the couple and their attorneys say. Then, once they realized after several minutes there was a medical issue with Bella, they didn’t call 911, the couple maintains.

They tried to use the bus radio to call dispatch, but had trouble with that. They called her mother instead, who found her body lifeless, blue and still in her wheelchair when she arrived a few minutes later. The mother, overcome with emotion, was the first to call 911 from the bus.

"Please hurry, please hurry," Lisa Herrera pleads with the 911 operator. "She’s blue. I need an ambulance."

Bella died the next day in a local hospital.

"It’s appalling I was the first person to be called instead of 911," Lisa Herrera said Thursday.

Steven Maher, an attorney for the Herreras, filed a federal lawsuit against the school district on Thursday alleging violations of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Stephen Hegarty, spokesman for the district, declined to comment on the lawsuit, saying school officials don’t address pending litigation.

"We are aware of the incident. This is a tragic situation," Hegarty said. "This is a girl who had medical complications, but as far as the specifics and allegations, we can’t comment on pending litigation."

The Herreras had plenty to say.

"They are supposed to be trained for each child’s needs," said Lisa Herrera, who wore a pendant around her neck that had a photo of Bella and contained some of her cremated remains. "I did trust them to bring her home safe to me every day."

A videotape of the bus trip home from the Riverview school, released by the family’s attorneys on Thursday, shows the trip beginning routinely enough on the afternoon of Jan. 25.

Bella was brought aboard the bus at 2:07 p.m. and sits in the right rear corner in her wheelchair. Five minutes later, the bus leaves school, and within a few minutes, her head begins falling forward. A bus attendant whose job it is to check on children sits on the left side of the bus a few rows up and glances back at her occasionally.

Many times, Bella is able to get her head back straight even, but by 2:24 p.m., she appears to be in serious distress. The bus attendant, Joanna Hamilton, asks the driver, Toniz Dole-Pizarro, to pull over.

"She can’t breathe, she’s turning blue," the attendant tells the driver. The aide calls Bella’s mother from a cellphone.

The bus is pulled over in front of a pediatric clinic on Balm Riverview Road, but no one from the bus goes there to seek help. A few minutes later, Lisa Herrera arrives on the scene.

The frantic and distraught mother pulls her daughter from the wheelchair and lays her on a bus seat. Then she puts her on the floor. The driver and the attendant by this time are trying to breathe life back into Bella.

Bella suffered brain damage as a result of a lack of oxygen caused by her obstructed airway, the lawsuit says. She lived long enough for her organs to be donated the next day, her parents said.

Dole-Pizarro, the bus driver, was new to the route and was asking for directions as she drove. She had been hired that month for that job, which paid $10.56 an hour; she quit three months later.

"Something like this is difficult on everyone involved," Hegarty said. "She was affected by this."

Hamilton, who earns $8.75 an hour as an attendant and has worked for the district for two years, remains on the job.

Neither was disciplined by the district, the school spokesman said. It was unclear Thursday whether the district ever investigated the death.

"The system’s broken. It’s all broken. Nobody really cares," said Dennis Herrera. "It’s like it never happened. We were forgotten."

"Personally, I feel they swept it under the rug," his wife added.

Board member April Griffin said she did not know of the girl’s death until Thursday.

"I’m very sorry for the family," she said. "I did not even know this had occurred. I would think the board should probably know about these things."

The Herreras and their attorney believe the district has failed special needs students repeatedly, and too often.

They point to last month’s drowning of a Down syndrome student at Rodgers Middle School and an incident before that in which a bus driver pushed a special needs student off a bus with her foot.

"I would say the incidents are unrelated," Hegarty said. "If we have one incident, we always review what is going on and whether we need to change something or revamp something to do it better."

The school spokesman also said it’s not unusual for a driver to call dispatch instead of 911 in an emergency. Then the person in dispatch can make the necessary phone calls.

Bella’s death continues to haunt the family.

"I can’t put into words expressing how it feels seeing your child with no life," said Lisa Herrera.

One of Bella’s younger siblings wants nothing to do with school buses now.

"She’s fearful of buses," Lisa Herrera said of one of her four other children. "She thinks buses kill you."


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rshaw@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7999