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A Special-Needs Child Ingested Bleach at School. Who's to Blame?

Photograph by Twenty20

Likely one of the most terrifying phone calls that any mother can receive is one telling her to rush to school because her child is hurt, but the frightening voicemail that Cynthia Garcia received in mid-September was worse than any nightmare.

After promptly rushing to her daughter's school upon hearing the troubling news from a staff member, she discovered her 10-year-old daughter, who is disabled and uses a feeding tube, strongly smelled of bleach.

According to The Washington Post, a lawsuit recently filed by Garcia and her attorney, Bruce Fagel, reveals that the incident happened while the fifth-grader was attending Irwin O. Addicott Elementary School in Fresno, California. The Central Valley school is for special-needs students and is part of the Fresno Unified School District.

According to the lawsuit, Cynthia's daughter, who has CEDNIK syndrome (a genetic developmental disability that has kept her in a wheelchair), was fed bleach through her gastronomy tube that was inserted through her abdomen. Due to the incident, she has suffered a lung infection and swelling in the lining of her stomach. The school staff, which was responsible for caring for the girl, claims to have been looking after other students that day, according to the family's attorney. Although it is unclear how the incident happened, Mr. Fagel said that one thing is clear: It must have been negligence.

“There are only two options, intentionally or unintentionally. I doubt they’re going to say they did it intentionally,” he said. “A mistake under those circumstances is negligence when the person doing it is charged with responsibility of knowing what they’re doing.”

The suit claims that the school was negligent in storing the feeding and cleaning supplies to the point that they must have been switched, which could explain how the girl came to be harmed.

In even more horrifying details, the complaint also details that the girl was fully aware that she had been fed poison but was unable to communicate it. According to the lawsuit, school employees neither called 911 nor brought the girl to the hospital after she got sick. Furthermore, the complaint accuses officials of not immediately telling Cynthia why her daughter was vomiting.

Cynthia didn't know how much actual peril her daughter was in until she was already taking her to the hospital and the school principal finally told her that the girl may have been fed bleach through her feeding tube. The complaint claims that the school's conduct here was "so outrageous and extreme as to exceed all bounds of decency in a civilized community." However, school officials have not revealed specifically who may have been responsible for this incident or how much bleach had gotten into the girl's body.

Although Fagel said that much of the damage to the girl will ultimately heal—including damage to her trachea and esophagus—she is still left with long-term injuries to her lung.

It remains to be seen what will happen with this lawsuit after the school district denied a previously filed claim, but Fagel said that the facts "are so outrageous and relatively clear."

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