TAMPA – The family of Jenny Caballero, an 11-year-old girl who walked away from gym class last year and drowned in a pond at Rodgers Middle School, got some closure Tuesday as its settlement with the Hillsborough County school district was finalized.
But for Elizabeth Rosas, her husband, Tarsicio Caballero-Perez, and their two daughters, the motivation was not about money. After Jenny died Oct. 22, 2012, they wanted to make sure changes were made so that a tragedy like this would never happen to another family.
Since Jenny's death, the school district has made significant changes to its exceptional student education department and at Rodgers Middle. The entire fence around the pond is now 6 feet high, employees have been fired or reassigned and training for ESE staff has improved
The settlement amounts to more than $500,000 over a lifetime and calls for the school district to pay an initial cash sum of $200,000 to the couple and their attorneys.
Beginning Feb. 15, 2014, and lasting for nine years, the settlement pays the family $750 each month. That amount will then be bumped up to nearly $1,500 per month for life, a guaranteed 16 years. The district will pay the family an additional $1,000 each year beginning next December and lasting for 25 years.
The couple did not speak directly to reporters during a press conference Tuesday, but their attorney said they are pleased with the settlement and with the changes that have been made.
Their attorney, Stephen Diaco, said the money will be used to put their daughters, 15-year-old Elizabeth and 20-year-old Lorena, through college. Lorena currently attends Hillsborough Community College and Elizabeth is still in high school.
Tears rolled down Rosa's cheeks and she wiped her eyes as she listened to an interpreter read a statement on her and her husband's behalf, first in English then in Spanish.
“We want to forgive everyone who was involved in the loss of our beloved daughter,” said interpreter Ana Vazquez, speaking for the couple. “Obviously, this tragedy has impacted and forever changed many lives, and we are aware that no one meant for this to happen.”
Diaco has represented the family for free since November 2012 because he said he wanted to help prevent a tragedy like this from happening again.
“I know our kids are safer today than they were on that fateful day in October,” Diaco said.
In addition to Diaco's pro-bono services, others have helped the family, as well. Local attorney David Alvarez donated his services in setting up an estate for Jenny. And Matthew Blair, of governmental relations firm Corcoran and Johnston, helped negotiate the settlement.
Jenny's death came less than one year after another student, Bella Herrera, died from a medical emergency she suffered on a bus ride home from Sessums Elementary School. The two deaths prompted the transfer of the special education department's top administrator.
At Rodgers Middle, former Principal Sharon Tumicki was demoted to assistant principal and is no longer at the school. The gym teacher retired and five aides have all either retired, resigned or were fired.
Former Assistant Principal Shawn Livingston, accused of incompetence and willful neglect of duty, lost his job in January. In October, the school board decided there was not enough evidence to support those accusations and he was granted back pay and benefits for the remainder of his one-year contract, which was up in June.
In an attempt to draw high-quality employees, the district recently created career paths for ESE aides. Also, an ESE task force was formed.
Before the school board voted on the settlement, member Susan Valdes made a statement in Spanish, in honor of Jenny. She said there is no way to put a price tag on the seventh-grader's death.
“This tragedy will live within us for a long, long time to come,” Valdes said. “I know this may not necessarily be something that will take away the hurt of the family, but I'm hoping that her siblings would be able to reach their educational goals in the name of their sister.”