Arguing that the Tucson Unified School District was negligent, a family is asking for $18 million after their 17-year-old daughter, who uses a wheelchair, went flying down a ramp that led to a stairwell.
The fall down the flight of stairs left the Tucson High Magnet School student with serious injuries, including a brain injury for which she continues to need treatment, according to a notice of complaint — a precursor to a lawsuit.
Maricela Corrales is required to use a wheelchair for mobility. Based on her disability, she was enrolled in TUSD’s exceptional-education department where she was assigned an aide who was to provide assistance when going up and down ramps, as requested by her parents who had voiced concerns about her safety, the family’s attorney, Bob Beal said.
At the time of the Aug. 23 incident, the student was in the care of a substitute aide while her regular aide was on break. The relief aide allowed Maricela to wheel herself down a flat hallway but was not aware of a downward ramp that leads directly to a stairwell from the third floor to the second.
“The aide didn’t have her hands on the wheelchair, and it was on that downgrade that Maricela — and the chair she was strapped into — careened down the ramp right toward the stairwell,” Beal said. “She went head-first down 12 stairs and hit the landing, sustaining multiple injuries, the most significant of which is a likely brain injury.”
The aide reported running in an attempt to grab the chair but was unsuccessful. Another student on his way to class heard the aide shout, “Stop, stop, slow down,” but recognized that Maricela was unable to do so and also attempted to stop her.
“All I saw was her just flip over, and as she went down the stairs I went (too), to see if she was OK or injured,” the boy said. “As soon as I got to her, there was blood coming from her (forehead) and it looked like a chunk was missing, and also her nose was bleeding. … I just felt so bad and I held her hand till the nurses came.”
The Tucson Fire Department also responded, reporting that the Maricela’s skull was exposed. She was hospitalized for four days.
In the days, weeks and months after the incident, Maricela reported vision problems, pain in her face and shoulder, dizziness, headaches, trouble sleeping, and emotional and behavioral issues due to the traumatic event, the complaint said.
In addition to numerous doctor appointments, Maricela took part in therapy sessions to help her overcome her fears of going back to school and being in a building with more than one level.
She continues to work through her issues today, Beal said, but has yet to return to school full-time, taking four classes instead of seven.
Maricela’s parents report that their daughter’s mobility has decreased, saying she is far weaker than before the incident and her endurance has significantly decreased.
While TUSD declined to comment on the pending litigation, Tucson High Principal Clarice Clash conducted an internal review, finding the incident was a “terrible accident” caused by a lack of detailed protocol between the regular aide and the substitute aide, the complaint filed by Beal said.
She also noted “Tucson High has safety hazards for students with wheelchairs and walkers that need to be addressed in the building and outside of buildings” but did not find that the actions of the aides were the central cause of the accident.