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Education news and notes from Tampa Bay and Florida

Rodgers Middle School firing is revisited

6

August

 

The assistant principal of Rodgers Middle School, fired in the aftermath of the death of a special-needs student, was before the Hillsborough County School Board on Tuesday, fighting to clear his record.

The district offered Shawn Livingston a demotion to a teaching job. But he would have had to waive his right to appeal, so he turned it down.

The early part of Tuesday's grievance hearing concerned the behavior of exceptional student education aides during gym class. The student, Jennifer Caballero, wandered away from a physical education class on Oct. 22 and drowned in a pond.

Coach Garry Gawrych, who taught the P.E. class and retired after Jenny's death, testified that he had problems numerous times with the aides and made those problems known to Livingston, whose responsibilities included P.E.

"It became a nervewracking situation for me," said Gawrych, who had never taught P.E. to ESE students before.

But Livingston, represented by attorney Robert McKee, contends he spoke to the aides about their need to become more engaged with the students. McKee said Livingston was a brand-new administrator, had just begun his required training, and did not do anything that would constitute the legal definition of "incompetency."

On cross examination, Gawrych said that sometimes he talked to principal Sharon Tumicki instead of Livingston. Tumicki has since been demoted and is no longer at Rodgers.

Tumicki, who became very emotional during her testimony, said she chose Livingston for the job and her only regret, where he is concerned, is that he had to go through the tragedy and the aftermath.

"He is incredible," she said. "He is so great for the kids. He is a leader. He is fun. I couldn't keep up with him."

Later in the morning, Livingston desribed his childhood in New York, his early teaching career in New York and New Jersey, and his years as an ESE teacher at Marshall Middle School in Hillsborough County.

He also described his interactions with Jennifer.

"She was full of life .... energetic," he said. Describing a day when he was called in because she had gotten ahold of a microphone and was singing into it, he said, "It was just her having fun. " He also recalled an incident when Jenny was lying on the floor and he had to coax her into joining the rest of the children who were returning to their classroom. "Hey, are you done having fun? Or do you want to roll around?" he told her.

Staffing was always an issue in the school, he said.

He said he was concerned on Oct. 16 when he saw ESE aides sitting passively during a P.E. class instead of becoming engaged and involving the students.

But he said he did not consider it a safety issue; rather, he felt the students were not getting enough instruction. "They need to be engaged," he said.

He intended to meet with the aides. But other matters -- including problems with a teacher who was attracting complaints, a theft at the school and preparation for a basketball game -- consumed him on Oct. 17 and Oct. 18. On Friday, Oct,. 19, school was closed. Jenny died on Oct, 22.

Livingston also described safety issues that he flagged to the district, but had trouble getting addressed. One was a hole in the grounds in front of the school. He also said there was a problem with mold.

Asked by his lawyer if he now knows of anything he could have done differently, he said he believes a through inspection from the district would have revealed that the fence leading to the pond where Jenny drowned was not secure.

"I tried to head things off," Livingston said. "I asked for support.. I've done everything I could to make sure everyone was safe on the campus."

After a break, Livingston was cross-examined by the school district. He continued to maintain that he initiated numerous safety measures at the school. Among them: When the girls' P.E. coach complained that there was not enough supervision in the girls' locker room, he said he implemented a system that had the girls using the locker room in shifts.

Responding to statements earlier by Gawrych, Livingston said the coaches never complained to him about safety issues involving the ESE aides.

Asked about an incident in September in which an ESE student tried to climb to the top of the bleachers, Livingston said that after he helped coax the child down, he did speak to the aides. He said he told them, "their job is to maintain the safety and security of the kids."

School district attorney Karen Gabbadon pointed out the discrepancy between Gawrych's statement, that he had raised the issue several times about the ESE aides; and Livingston's contention that he did not.

"Is he mistaken?" she asked.

"He's not mistaken, he's wrong," he answered.

Gabbadon asked Livingston if he was an expert in mold. (He was not). She also questioned his earlier statement that the school district had contested his unemployment compensation. He acknowledged he did receive his unemployment checks.

When board member Susan Valdes tried to find out more about Livingston's requests for a safety walk-through that might have revealed problems with the campus fence, school district attorney Thomas Gonzalez objected, saying it was irrelevant.

So Valdes rephrased the question and asked if it was difficult to have problems addressed by the district.

"The challenge was not getting things done when you needed them done," he said.

Later, Valdes got a chance to make her point.

"That question should have been permitted," she said. "Because if the safety walk-through had been granted in a timely manner, between July 2012 and September 2012 ... maybe we would not be here today and Jenny Caballero would be out in her pigtails, signing and dancing."

Board member Candy Olson, troubled that Livingston appeared to be avoiding taking any of the responsibility for Jenny's death, asked if that was the case.

"As far as the death of a child, we all are responsible and we all play a part," he said.

Calling Gawrych back up to the stand in the afternoon, Gabbadon asked him again if he could describe any conversations in which he expressed concern to Livingston about the ESE aides, and he described two such talks.

Then she asked if he was the P.E. teacher for ESE.

"Yes," Gawrych said.

"And what training in ESE did you have going into that position?" she asked.

"None."

After a long discussion, both sides agreed that the issues about the mold, the pothole and Livingston's request for a walk-through inspection were not pertinent to the case against him, but rather they could be used as background about his character.

The hearing was concluded Tuesday, with no decision until after both sides and the board have a chance to review transcripts. An order is expected in about a month.

[Last modified: Tuesday, August 6, 2013 7:26pm]

    

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