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Cape parents file suit against school district

By Staff | Feb 11, 2012

A pair of Cape Coral parents are claiming in a lawsuit filed last week that a former elementary teacher physically and mentally abused their autistic child.

The suit was filed Jan. 30 by attorney Adam Balkan on behalf of C.B. and N.B., the parents and guardians of C.B. The suit only identifies the family by initials, but the child is described as a “low functioning, non-verbal” minor.

The family filed the suit against the Lee County School Board and Catherine Hile, the child’s former kindergarten teacher at Gulf Elementary School.

Hile served as the child’s teacher during the 2008-09 school year.

“The district is aware of the litigation – that’s all I can say,” Joe Donzelli, the spokesman for the Lee County School District, said.

“The district does not provide comment or any information concerning pending or current litigation,” he added. “Therefore, I am unable to provide any additional information other than confirming that yes, we are aware.”

Hile, 46, of Punta Gorda, did not return messages seeking comment.

“He has long-lasting permanent injuries because of this,” Balkan said of his clients’ son and the alleged treatment he underwent under Hile’s supervision. “He’s had to leave the house for awhile and get counseling at a residential facility.”

According to the suit, the child has “severe and significant behavior and aggression that require medication, among other therapies” because of the treatment, and he could no longer live in his home with his parents and siblings.

“It’s caused him to be apprehensive, violent and to lash back at authority figures, and even kids his own age,” Balkan said.

He added that the child also sustained physical injuries at the time.

“The permanency of it, we’re not sure about yet,” Balkan said.

Hile allegedly would twist the boy’s wrists until she induced pain, bend his fingers backward to induce pain and pinch, push, pull, hit and strike the child, according to the complaint.

Balkan said the family is seeking compensation and injunctive relief.

Hile was hired in August 2006, and she worked at Gulf Elementary as an exceptional student education teacher until December 2009, when she was transferred to the Student Assignment Department, officials reported.

Hile, who resigned in February 2010, was employed at an annual salary of about $50,000.

According to the suit, the family alleges that the school board failed to adequately screen potential teachers, or ignored the results of employee screenings when the results showed the teacher would be inappropriate.

It also alleges that the board failed to adequately train and supervise its staff to ensure students were not subjected to physical abuse, excessive force and violence – “deliberate indifference” toward students’ rights.

Hile has a history of physical abuse, violence and inappropriate behavior toward students dating back to 1994, according to the complaint. While teaching in Charlotte County, she was reprimanded by officials for striking a student in the face “to get her attention” and directing “inappropriate language” at students.

In 2005, while still working at Charlotte Harbor School – a school for children with disabilities – another staff member allegedly witnessed Hill strike a 13-year-old student in the arm three times with a closed fist.

Charlotte County Public Schools opened an investigation.

Hile resigned in January 2006, after two months of paid suspension.

According to the suit, the Charlotte school board at the time was moving forward with discipline which would have included Hile’s firing.

In February 2006, Hile was hired by the DeSoto County school district. The parents of the 13-year-old from Charlotte learned of the hiring and notified the Florida Department of Education about Hile’s past and prior allegations.

The state agency opened an investigation as a result.

Investigators uncovered additional allegations of Hile stepping on students’ toes to keep them in line, putting hand sanitizer in their mouths to stop them from yelling and tying their shoelaces to their chairs to keep them in place.

According to the suit, Hile was terminated in 2006 from her position as an ESE liaison at a DeSoto middle school in Arcadia after she refused to resign.

In 2008, Hile entered into a settlement agreement with the state agency, neither admitting nor denying, but electing “not to contest” the allegations. She accepted a letter of reprimand from the state and agreed to terms.

Prior to the settlement, Hile faced suspension, revocation or permanent revocation of her educator’s certificate, or other disciplinary action.

Under the terms of the settlement, Hile had to submit to a mental health evaluation and complete any prescribed counseling or treatment. She also agreed to two years of probation for a period of two employment years.

If Hile violated the terms, her certificate could be permanently revoked.

In August 2008, Cape police responded to Gulf Elementary. According to a report, a man stated that his daughter had an episode and the teachers, one whom was Hile, hurt her. The girl had red marks on her chin, nose and ears.

Hile told police that the girl had a violent episode, screaming, pulling her own hair and throwing herself on the floor. She and the other woman attempted a certain hold on the girl unsuccessfully, but were finally able to restrain her.

According to the suit, Hile was found lying on top of the 5-year-old girl.

Officers observed red marks on the other teacher’s body, as well as a bite mark on her forearm from the child. She and Hile stated that they only used a minimum amount of required force to restrain the child, the report states.

While at Gulf Elementary, several staffers reportedly witnessed Hile use what they believed to be excessive force and reported it to administrators. One aide documented five days of what that individual thought constituted abuse by Hile toward students, including the boy, the suit states.