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Lee School District settles lawsuit with Cape couple

By Staff | Mar 21, 2013

The Lee County School District has settled in a lawsuit filed last year by a Cape Coral couple, who claimed that a teacher abused their autistic child.

In January 2012, Boca Raton-based attorney Adam Balkan filed the suit on behalf of Cynthia and Nicole Brimm, the parents and guardians of the boy, who is described in the document as a “low functioning, non-verbal” minor.

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

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

On March 8, the court approved the settlement agreement in the case.

“It’s a $200,000 settlement, and most of that money goes into a special needs trust for the young boy,” Balkan said Thursday in a phone interview.

“The insurer for the school district, I think, paid for everything,” he said.

The district declined to comment on the settlement Thursday.

“At this time, the district will not have any comment regarding this matter,” Jennifer DeShazo of the Lee County School District said in an e-mail.

Hile could not be reached for comment on the lawsuit.

Balkan called the $200,000 a “fair settlement.”

“The family’s happy with it,” he said. “Of course, they’d be happier if this never ever happened.”

According to the suit, the boy had “severe and significant behavior and aggression that required medication, among other therapies” because of the physical and mental abuse from Hile. He could no longer live in his home.

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 him.

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 resigned in 2010, with an annual salary of about $50,000.

According to the suit, the family alleged 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 alleged 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.

“At the end of the day, I think the school board understood the error of hiring this woman and they came forward with a settlement,” Balkan said.

Hile allegedly had a history of physical abuse, violence and inappropriate behavior toward students dating back to 1994. 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.

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

“The Lee County School Board has tightened up its hiring procedures and dealing with the in-school complaints,” Balkan said, adding that the principal who had received the complaints regarding Hile is no longer at the school.

“I can’t tell you the reasons why, but he retired right after that school year,” he said.

Hile resigned in Charlotte in 2006, after two months’ paid suspension. According to the suit, the Charlotte County 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.

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.

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.

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

Later that year, she was hired the Lee County School District.

Balkan said the Brimms’ feelings are mixed on the conclusion to the case.

“They’re happy it’s over, behind them, that they got a fair settlement,” he said. “But they also wanted their day in court and the world to know.”

Asked why they accepted the settlement, Balkan said to end it.

“It’s been a grueling ardiuous thing,” he said. “They live with this every day and every night – it’s just a way to put this behind them.”

Balkan added that he and his clients proved their case and that the allegations in the complaint have “all pretty much” been verified.

“She, the teacher, is no longer there, and I seriously doubt she will ever be able to teach again,” he said.