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Officials: Bus driver error cost girl's life

Liability is capped at $200,000, but insurance would allow the schools to pay the girl's family $1-million more.

Published January 7, 2006

Brooke Ingoldsby

Pinellas school officials formally admitted Friday that a district bus driver was negligent in the death last year of 8-year-old student Brooke Ingoldsby.

The concession, which echoed earlier public comments by school superintendent Clayton Wilcox, came in a legal filing in Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court. The district has scheduled a mediation session Jan. 17 with lawyers for the girl's family.

"In this case we understand that we have some responsibility," Wilcox said Friday. "I just feel this family has suffered enough. They don't have to suffer through a protracted lawsuit with the school district."

State law caps liability at $200,000 for school districts and other public agencies. But a district insurance policy would allow the school system to pay the family up to $1-million more, officials said. Any settlement would have to be approved by the School Board.

Any award larger than the $1.2-million available at the district level would have to be approved by the Florida Legislature.

Brooke died at Bayfront Medical Center on Feb. 11, 2005, after she was struck by a car as she tried to cross Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street N at 90th Avenue. A Pinellas school bus driver mistakenly dropped her off on 90th Avenue on the east side, despite instructions that said Brooke's stop was on the west side of the busy street.

The driver, William Ralston, then 75, had never driven that route before and was working in relief of another driver. According to a district account, he suffered several setbacks that day, including an inaccurate route sheet, a young rider who suffered a bout with asthma, a wrong turn onto Interstate 275 and a group of noisy students in the back of the bus. All of it conspired to put the route about an hour behind schedule, triggering a tragic chain of events.

Brooke's grandmother was waiting at the stop, but left to find out why the bus had not arrived. When it did arrive, leaving Brooke at the curb during rush hour, family members were elsewhere, scrambling to find the girl. Her mother, Michelle Allen, had left work and was looking for Brooke in her car when she got the call that her daughter had been taken to the hospital.

A few days later, as Brooke was being buried, school district officials announced that Ralston had lied about the accident. He initially said he had not written down the correct stop information when he called a dispatcher, blaming the error on the frenzied conditions aboard the bus. But a police officer who read Ralston's account in the St. Petersburg Times remembered he had seen Ralston's notes with the correct information written down.

Investigators later determined that Ralston had, in fact, written the correct stop information from the dispatcher but did not execute the stop properly. He tried to cover up his error by destroying his original notes and fabricating a new document, officials said.

He was not charged in the incident and later resigned.

Brooke was a third-grade student at James B. Sanderlin Elementary School in St. Petersburg. Last month, the school dedicated a fountain, "Brooke's Brook," in memory of the girl.

She was the second student to die last school year in an accident involving a Pinellas school bus. Clearwater High student Rebecca McKinney was struck and killed in October 2004 as she crossed McMullen-Booth Road. A bus had dropped Rebecca and her sister off on the east side of McMullen-Booth despite a district directive against stops that force students to cross busy roads.

The district's admission in Brooke's case does not affect the lawsuit filed by Rebecca's family, School Board attorney James A. Robinson said in an e-mail Friday to board members.

"The two cases present substantially different factual and legal issues," he said.

[Last modified January 7, 2006, 01:12:01]

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