Belleville schools settle lawsuits alleging students with special needs were injured

What is the Belleville Area Special Services Cooperative?

Here are answers to questions about what the Belleville, IL, based education cooperative does, who works there and how it’s funded.
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Here are answers to questions about what the Belleville, IL, based education cooperative does, who works there and how it’s funded.

This year, Belleville schools settled two lawsuits filed by local families, which alleged that one student was injured falling down stairs in 2015 and that another was choked by a teacher’s aide in 2014.

The families received $100,000 and $40,000 in the separate settlement agreements after arguing that Belleville District 118 and the Belleville Area Special Services Cooperative were responsible.

In both of the settlement agreements, which were provided to the Belleville News-Democrat this month, the school district and the special education cooperative denied any liability. They argued in St. Clair County court documents that the civil lawsuits should be dismissed.

The Belleville Area Special Services Cooperative was named in both of the lawsuits. It provides special education services to area schools and students who have disabilities, behavior disorders, hearing impairments, cognitive disorders and autism. Its insurers paid a total of $50,000 to the families.

Most recently, the cooperative agreed to give $40,000 to the family of a boy who was allegedly choked by one of the cooperative’s former employees. It also signed an agreement earlier in 2018 to give $10,000 to the family of a boy who was allegedly unsupervised when he fell down some stairs while using equipment that their lawsuit states was provided by the cooperative.

Belleville District 118 is named only in the lawsuit over the boy’s fall. He was a student in the school district who used a gait trainer, special equipment the cooperative is alleged to have given to District 118, according to the lawsuit. Gait trainers help people walk if they have physical disabilities.

Insurers for District 118 paid the boy’s family $90,000, bringing their total settlement to $100,000.

Belleville District 118 receives state and federal funding and collects local property taxes to operate. The cooperative, known locally as BASSC, gets money from the state and the federal government, but it doesn’t collect property taxes from residents. The school districts that use BASSC’s services also pay the cooperative.

District 118 Superintendent Matt Klosterman and Jeff Daugherty, executive director for the cooperative, couldn’t immediately be reached for comment Thursday. But they aren’t allowed to discuss the terms of the settlements because the agreements are confidential. The BND obtained copies through Freedom of Information Act requests.

Alleged choking

In a 2016 lawsuit against the Belleville Area Special Services Cooperative, Velma Oliver alleges that her son Deitrick, then 9 years old, was pushed against a padded wall and choked by a teacher’s aide at school in May 2014.

Since birth, Deitrick has had significant developmental disabilities, according to the lawsuit.

The aide named in the lawsuit is Portrait Pettigrew, who no longer works at the cooperative. She couldn’t be reached for comment but denied choking Deitrick in court documents.

Pettigrew pleaded guilty in December 2014, before the lawsuit was filed, to aggravated battery of a child younger than 13, a Class 3 felony. She is registered as a violent offender against youth in Illinois, which means she can’t work in a school again. Her state educator license was also revoked.

The Olivers alleged in their lawsuit that the special education cooperative didn’t perform a background check before hiring Pettigrew and that her prior cases in St. Clair County should have disqualified her from the job.

The cooperative denied that allegation and argued the lawsuit should be dismissed because a background check showed Pettigrew didn’t have any convictions that would have prohibited the school from hiring her.

Generally, people who have been convicted for violent crimes and registered sex offenders can’t work in schools.

Pettigrew’s only prior conviction was for transporting alcohol. The cooperative argued that it had no reason to believe Pettigrew could potentially harm a student based on that conviction.

Both the lawsuit and the cooperative’s response stated that Pettigrew was also charged with, but not convicted of, domestic battery in St. Clair County.

The $40,000 settlement agreement was approved in May, but the court case is still considered open. There was a motion made to settle the lawsuit on June 21. The next court appearance is scheduled for Sept. 17.

Jason Caraway and Matthew Marlen, attorneys for the Olivers, both declined to comment on the case.

Alleged unsupervised fall

Rachael Rodowick sued Belleville District 118 and the Belleville Area Special Services Cooperative after she said her son Leonard was injured when he fell down some stairs in May 2015, according to the lawsuit from the same year.

Leonard, who couldn’t walk or talk at the time, was allegedly using a gait trainer in the gymnasium at Jefferson School when he fell down a nearby staircase, court documents state.

The family alleged that the cooperative provided the gait trainer to District 118 without instructions for how to use it and without a warning about the risk of injury, that it wasn’t inspected for safety and that the boy wasn’t supervised by District 118 staff when he used the equipment.

Belleville District 118 argued that the lawsuit should be dismissed because the Tort Immunity Act protects it from liability for injuries. The cooperative also argued the lawsuit should be dismissed because it was protected by the act for allegedly providing equipment.

The school district and special education cooperative approved the $100,000 settlement in February 2018. The lawsuit was dismissed a month later because of the settlement.

Daniel Juncker, the attorney for the Rodowick family, declined to comment.

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