TAMPA — As the Hillsborough County School District investigates a student's death last month at Rodgers Middle School, issues are emerging that go beyond the five suspended special education employees and even their Riverview school.
It is unclear if the workers, who earn as little as $11,000 a year and are now on paid leave, were trained in how to react when a student goes missing.
One told Hillsborough sheriff's deputies he was behind the building, smoking, when he learned 11-year-old Jennifer Caballero, who had Down syndrome, had walked out of gym class.
Nor is it clear why administrators did not act on a coach's earlier complaint that the exceptional student education (ESE) aides who were supposed to help the students watched them from the bleachers instead.
A 700-page Sheriff's Office report issued Tuesday describes a chaotic situation on Oct. 22 that only worsened when Jennifer disappeared and was eventually discovered, drowned, in a retention pond.
One of the physical education teachers was absent. More than 100 students were in the gym.
By several accounts, coach Garry Gawrych found Jennifer hiding under the bleachers. He stood her up, brought her to the ESE aides and asked them to keep an eye on her. Previously, he had complained to the assistant principal that the aides were inattentive.
One of the aides, Catherine Seely, had to escort a child to the office. Because of that, she has not been placed on leave.
Another, Terrance Sowa, went out for a bathroom break. "And I, of course, alerted everybody that I was leaving," he told deputies, according to a transcript in the report.
But he later said he went behind the cafeteria to have a cigarette with the cafeteria manager.
Confusion ensued when Gawrych and the other aides realized Jennifer had gone missing.
Principal Sharon Tumicki already was dealing with a 911 emergency stemming from a child's food allergy.
Hearing about Jennifer, she tried to get everyone in place. "Kids were out helping us look. I mean, we just were trying everything," she told deputies.
As assistant principal Shawn Livingston described it, "The procedure is all hands on deck." Teachers searched their classrooms while administrators divided the campus into zones.
But those aides who were questioned about protocol could not describe any.
"I haven't had training to do nothing," said Micaela Scipio. "Well like … not like formal or anything."
When pressed, she said, "They have a thing called an all call."
What is an all call? "I don't know."
Patricia Tobin, one of the aides assigned to Jennifer, said, "There are trainings you can sign up for … certain little policies."
The deputy asked her, repeatedly, what steps she was supposed to take if a child was missing.
"I do not remember that," she said.
Tumicki declined to comment.
"The questions you are asking are the sorts of questions that I expect will be answered by the (Office of Professional Standards) and our work group," said district spokesman Stephen Hegarty, referring to a committee superintendent MaryEllen Elia has appointed to study ESE safety.
In addition to the Rodgers drowning, the district faces a lawsuit and public outcry over the January death of a special-needs child who suffered respiratory distress on a school bus. Neither of the two employees on the bus called 911.
The School Board's incoming chairwoman, April Griffin, said the Rodgers inquiry will go beyond the five ESE aides. "We're investigating the entire situation," she said. "If anyone else contributed, they will be held accountable."
Just how far the investigations will go is hard to predict.
Of the district's more than 25,000 employees, many of the lowest paid are clustered in the jobs of ESE aides and attendants as well as transportation attendants — jobs that can be had with a high school diploma or GED.
Elia has pledged to give priority to the Rodgers investigation and hopes to have both reports in December.
Griffin said that beyond these reports, the district might have to give serious consideration to the hiring and training of workers who care for its most vulnerable children.
"We might have to look at re-adjusting our values in this district," she said.
Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected]