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South Shore News

Hillsborough school board wants suit over girl's death dropped

The Tampa Tribune
Published:   |   Updated: March 13, 2013 at 07:35 PM

The Hillsborough County School Board has filed a motion to dismiss a lawsuit filed by the parents of a special-needs student who died on a district school bus in January.

Lisa and Dennis Herrera of Riverview filed suit in federal court in November against the school board and school district, saying the death of their daughter, Isabella, amounted to a violation of civil rights.

Isabella, who went by the nickname "Bella," had a neuromuscular disorder that limited her mobility. On Jan. 25, a bus driver and bus aide failed to properly tilt her wheelchair so that her head wouldn't fall forward, cutting off her air supply, the Herreras claim. When the employees noticed a problem with the 7-year-old, they didn't call 911 or approach the pediatric clinic the bus had stopped in front of, the parents said.

Instead, the bus employees called the district dispatcher and Lisa Herrera, who hurried to the scene and, overcome with emotion, called 911. The scene was captured on a bus surveillance camera released by family lawyers when the suit was filed.

School Board attorney Thomas Gonzalez said Thursday that the Herreras "have not stated a federal cause of action" and the case belongs in state court.

The motion to dismiss the suit, filed Wednesday, said the Herreras cannot claim relief under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 or the Americans with Disabilities Act, which they cite in their lawsuit. The motion also states the Herreras fail to allege facts that would establish that the school board was "willfully indifferent" to Bella on the basis of her disability. And it claims that the school district is not a governmental body and should not be a party to the suit.

The state and its agencies, including school boards, enjoy sovereign immunity from lawsuits, making large damage awards much more difficult to collect in state cases than in federal cases.

Steven Maher, lawyer for the Herreras, declined comment on Thursday, saying he would not discuss a pending matter. He is expected to file a response.

The Hillsborough district has faced several high-profile incidents involving special-needs students this year. In October, a Rodgers Middle School student with Down syndrome wandered away from gym class and drowned in a nearby pond.

A bus driver was charged with aggravated child abuse after kicking a special-needs student from Tampa Bay Boulevard Elementary off a bus, breaking the student's ankle. And a Seminole Heights Elementary teacher was charged with child abuse for rubbing a shoe against an autistic boy's face.

Joyce Wieland, the district's general director of exceptional student education, is being transferred and will become the general director of student placement and support on Jan. 7 in a move that officials described as lateral. (813) 259-7834