Special needs student's death on school bus sparks lawsuit

Special needs child died on her way home

TAMPA - Lisa Herrera just can't watch the videotape from the day her daughter died.  She said it would bring back the painful memory last January of rushing onto a school bus in Riverview and finding the child, lifeless and turning blue, after she stopped breathing during the ride home.

"I thought it would be anyone's instinct when someone's not breathing to give them air," Herrera said.  It's a key point in a lawsuit she and her husband Dennis Herrera filed against the Hillsborough County School District, which claims that their daughter, Isabella Herrera, had her civil rights violated the day she died.

Isabella, 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 January 26, 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 pediatrict clinic."

One issue is 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 9-1-1 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 this lawsuit hasn't been fully studied, but 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."

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