Hillsborough schools settle lawsuit with parents of special needs student Isabella Herrera

TAMPA - The Hillsborough County school district approved an $800,000 settlement Tuesday for the family of a special needs student who died on her school bus.

Isabella Herrera, 7, nicknamed Bella, suffered from illnesses related to muscular dystrophy, and was bound to a wheelchair. If her head tilted a certain way, Bella would stop breathing.

A security camera on Bella's school bus captured her entire trip home Jan. 26, 2012, from the moment she was placed in the back of the bus to the time she was removed by paramedics.

It's what happened in the middle of that trip that has the family so distraught. The Herreras claim that a school aide and the bus driver failed to properly take care of their daughter, and that her death could have been prevented.

"No one even took this girl out of her seat," said Steve Maher, the Herrera family's attorney. "All this while the bus is stopped in front of a pediatric clinic."

One issue was how the school employees on the bus responded when the little girl stopped breathing. The bus video shows the child's head bobbing back and forth, until she slumps forward. The aide made what appeared to be an attempt to wake her up, and after realizing she was unconscious, asked the driver to stop the bus.

Lisa Herrera said at no time did the employees call for emergency help. "I realized that nobody called 9-1-1 and that was the only thing I could do," Herrera said. Instead, she claimed the staffers called a supervisor, and then her, and she rushed to the bus to find Bella not breathing.

Herrera made the call to 911 from the bus, and her frantic and panicked reaction is all clearly visible on the dramatic videotape.

"I need an ambulance! My daughter's not breathing," she screamed, pacing up and down the aisle of the bus. The school employees appear in the picture as well, but they deferred to paramedics when they arrived.

Steve Maher, the couple's attorney, said how the situation was handled goes beyond just the two workers on the bus. Maher said it's a problem that trickles down from the highest level of state government.

"This is about a system that's turned its back on the needy," Maher said. He argued that Florida has not properly budgeted for children with disabilities, and the Justice Department has already warned Attorney General Pam Bondi about the problem.

Maher said the state has federal dollars specifically earmarked for handling kids like Isabella Herrera, but instead they're being transferred into general spending funds.

"All the state had to do was provide Bella with what the federal government was paying them to do," Maher said.

The child's father said after witnessing other deaths of children under the care of Hillsborough County Schools, enough is enough.

"This is the kind of systemic problem we want to fight," he said. "We don't want this to continue to happen."

The district said employees are trained to follow procedures when there's an emergency and discipline is enacted when necessary.

"We don't wait for litigation," said Steve Hegarty, school district spokesman. "If we ever have an incident that occurs in our classrooms, whether it's a bus or anywhere else, of course we revisit it and see if there's anything we could have done better," Hegarty said.

For Lisa Herrera, she hopes the legal action enacts change. "All of these issues could have been prevented. That's the bottom line," she said. But the memory of her daughter's final day were almost too much to handle.

"I can't explain into words, seeing your child with no life. I can't."


Herrera slammed school district leaders moments before they voted to approve the settlement.

"I hope Bella didn't die for nothing," Herrera said while her voiced cracked.

Herrera told district leaders they need to make imminent and "simple changes," like making sure all school buses have working radios, all buses are equipped with defibrillators and all staff dealing with children are trained in CPR.

She added that a nurse should also accompany special needs students on their school bus rides.

"It's going to take more than your words, more than your workshops, more than your consultants to fix this," she said.

Her pleas were met with tears by school board members.

"There aren't any enough words or not enough money in this world that could replace your little one," said Susan Valdez, vice chair of the school board.

Herrera's attorney echoed those sentiments.

"If this family could give every penny back to have Bella here they would," said Dan Cotter, her attorney.

The settlement agreement will go before a probate judge Wednesday. The judge must approve the settlement.

More than 10 people were deposed in this case. Herrera's attorney said the depositions will reveal a "broken system" and show how changes have still not been made that could prevent another situation like this from happening.

The depositions will be released in the morning.

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