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Judge OKs CPS paying $4M to family of autistic teen who, unwatched, drowned

A judge has signed off on a $4 million Chicago Public Schools settlement with the family of a special education student who drowned in Kennedy High School’s swimming pool.

A judge has signed off on a $4 million Chicago Public Schools settlement with the family of a special education student who drowned in Kennedy High School’s swimming pool. And CPS has just paid more than $100,000 in back pay to a special ed. teacher who lost his job for, he says, repeatedly sounding the alarm that the Southwest Side school was violating federal rules regarding special education students. | Family photo

A Cook County judge has signed off on the largest settlement the Chicago Public Schools system has paid in years — $4 million to the family of a special education student who drowned in Kennedy High School’s swimming pool.

And CPS has just paid more than $100,000 in back pay to a special ed. teacher who lost his job after, he says, repeatedly sounding the alarm that the Southwest Side school was violating federal rules regarding special education students.

In the months before Rosario Israel Gomez, a 14-year-old freshman with autism, drowned in the deep end of Kennedy’s pool in January 2017 despite the presence of six adults, Cyrous Hashemian says he alerted CPS officials that Kennedy was: cutting corners on federally mandated meetings to determine the needs of special ed students; wrongly relying on long-term substitutes to work with them; and had someone who was hired as a special ed aide working instead as an office clerk.

CPS officials wouldn’t comment. They previously have said Hashemian was laid off in the summer of 2016 based on low performance ratings.

An independent arbitrator found that Kennedy’s administrators didn’t evaluate him correctly and awarded him back pay of about $116,000, plus his job back.

Hashemian, who continued to email warnings to CPS officials throughout the 2016-17 school year, decided not to return to the school system.

The teenager known as Israel died Jan. 25, 2017, after slipping into the deep end of the pool without anyone noticing. He couldn’t swim and was supposed to have had someone watching him, a Chicago Sun-Times / Better Government Association investigation published in September 2017 found.

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CPS officials fired three school employees: a lifeguard found to have brushed off students’ warnings that someone was at the bottom of the pool, a gym teacher who was on his computer at the time and a substitute aide who didn’t see the boy enter the water.

Israel’s mother Yolanda Juarez filed a wrongful-death lawsuit. Cook County Circuit Judge James O’Hara approved CPS’ $4 million settlement earlier this month.

CPS officials wouldn’t discuss the deal, which the Chicago Board of Education approved last month, saying it needs to be approved by a probate judge.

Schools officials refused for nearly two years to release records of their investigation of Israel’s death. They did so only after the BGA sued and his mother said she wanted them made public, saying, “They failed my son . . . . And they don’t want this to get out.”

Lauren FitzPatrick is a Sun-Times reporter. Katie Drews is a reporter for the Better Government Association.