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Family intends to sue district in girl’s death


St. Petersburg Times

Sara and Jim McKinney sat silently at a law firm conference table Wednesday, not 10 weeks from the day they removed their daughter, Rebecca, from life support. A box of Kleenex sat within reach. Behind them: one photo of Rebecca, 16, in a formal black dress and one of her climbing from a pool in the one-piece suit she wore for the Clearwater High swim team. Steve Yerrid, the McKinneys’ attorney, spoke of lawsuits, the value of a life and the impending void at Christmas dinner. Sara McKinney spoke only with a strained expression that held back tears. “Do they set a place for this young daughter?” Yerrid asked, speaking of Rebecca, who was hit by a pickup truck on McMullen- Booth Road in Clearwater after getting off a Pinellas school bus Oct. 8. “Do they ignore the place? Do they decorate and put a stocking up for her? You see, the pain is not something that goes away.”

Yerrid said he has mailed the Pinellas School Board a formal notice of the McKinneys’ intent to sue the district – once for Rebecca’s death and a second time for the trauma her 17-year-old sister, Mary, suffered while watching the accident. The notice is required under Florida law as a prelude to the lawsuits, which Yerrid expects to file in six months. The McKinneys’ goal, he said, is to make the district correct the problems that forced Rebecca to dash across six lanes of traffic, in violation of district policy. Another goal is to change the office culture that he said dismissed the family’s repeated requests to change her bus stop. “Their desire, their motivation is to make a difference,” Yerrid said of the family.

Yerrid’s announcement came as Pinellas school superintendent Clayton Wilcox finishes an investigation of the district’s Transportation Department prompted by Rebecca McKinney’s death. He said the probe would result in a “comprehensive plan” to improve the department and disciplinary action against some employees. Wilcox said he plans to announce the details next week. Asked about airing district problems while facing plaintiffs who will use it in court, Wilcox acknowledged he was in an awkward spot. But he said: “We’re a public agency; we have to maintain the confidence of tens of thousands of families who use our transportation service every day. I want them to know we take their children’s safety as our highest priority.” Wilcox, who took over the school district Nov. 1, is charged with cleaning up a problem not of his making. McKinney was killed during a three-month transition period leading up to the retirement of former superintendent Howard Hinesley, who headed the district for 14 years.

Her death already has forced the district into an internal debate about systemic problems in the Transportation Department, including a revelation that children had been crossing four or more lanes at nearly 300 bus stops, all in violation of district policy. A report by the district’s risk management department detailed poor communications between bus drivers and route supervisors, plus problems with the district’s computer routing system. School Board members have been critical of the department for the way some of its employees have rudely dismissed parent complaints about bus stops. Wilcox said he has pursued a public investigation of the department against the advice of district lawyers. Yerrid, however, said the district has not been public enough. When Pinellas bus drivers called to tell him what they knew about the Transportation Department’s workings, School Board Attorney John Bowen sent him a letter saying all contact with district employees should go through him.

“We simply have hit a wall of silence over there,” Yerrid said from his office in a Tampa high-rise. “They don’t want us talking with people who know what we should know. We believe it’s a public entity, and we believe they’re accountable to us.”

Bowen said a lawyer may not have contact with members of an opposing party who they know are represented by an attorney. “It’s a matter of ethics,” he said. “I didn’t discontinue their investigation. I just said, ‘Come through me.’ ”

Under state law, the district could be held liable for no more than $100,000 per person and $200,000 per incident, Bowen said. However, if a jury were to award more than that, the Legislature could be asked to approve a “claims bill” for the higher amount, he said. Either way, the money would come from the district’s operating fund, he said. If the lawsuit is filed, he said, the company that administers the district’s self-insurance plan will assess the potential liability and hold money in reserve.

Echoing other district officials, Wilcox expressed sympathy for the McKinneys, saying, “This has to be a horrendous thing to deal with.” He also suggested the two sides could avoid a lawsuit by talking about steps he will be taking to correct problems.

Yerrid said a good first step would be for the district to allow him to speak with bus drivers as part of his own investigation. But he was vague on whether the matter could be put to rest without a trial or at least a settlement.

“I always believe that good works have good results,” he said. “This family is not vindictive.”

But he also said: “In our civil litigation system, it always is ultimately about money because these parents deserve the measurement of the loss that they sustained.”