TAMPA — If he had a learning-disabled child, Aron Zions says he'd want Ingrid Peavy to be the child's teacher.
Peavy, now on paid suspension after a child under her supervision ran away from Pierce Middle School, is known as a competent and caring teacher who runs clubs and talent shows in her off-hours at the Town 'N Country school.
"If I had to say who's the best teacher on campus, I would have to say her," said Zions, who teaches social studies and study skills at Pierce. He's an officer in the teachers union, but said he was not speaking for the union.
Zions contacted the Tampa Bay Times after learning the Hillsborough County School District is moving to fire Peavy, 33, an eight-year employee who taught exceptional student education.
He and four co-workers met over lunch on Friday, a student holiday. They're organizing a fundraising dinner for Peavy, who has three children.
Officials say a disabled child disappeared from Pierce on Oct. 29 when Peavy was supposed to be supervising him.
A letter from the district's professional standards office says a plan was in place to make sure the child did not run, and Peavy should have followed it. The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office's Child Protective Investigations department verified inadequate supervision.
The district takes those findings seriously, said spokesman Stephen Hegarty. What's more, he said, "if we didn't act, and a week later a tragedy happened, that would be a bad thing."
The incident happened one week after special-needs child Jennifer Caballero disappeared from Rodgers Middle School in Riverview and drowned in a pond. The timing makes Zions and others suspicious about Peavy's treatment. "It's a knee-jerk reaction," he said.
Hegarty's response: "We would have handled it the same way a year earlier."
Peavy said she could not comment. Henry Lefler, the Pierce principal who was transferred soon after the incident, declined to comment earlier in the week.
While the other teachers at Friday's gathering declined to be quoted, they agreed with Zions that teachers are being held to unrealistic standards when it comes to keeping track of middle school students.
They also spoke highly of Peavy, and her last two district evaluations gave her high marks.
The district is revising its procedures to prevent ESE students from running away, a behavior educators call "elopement."
Staffers are assigned to supervise students as they arrive in the morning. They are to be posted throughout campus to keep watch as students move from one class to another. If a child is not where he should be, the teacher is to contact the main office immediately. That call initiates a series of actions to locate the child.
But Zions said the reality is often more like this: A student skips class. He might be in the restroom or the gym. The teacher calls the office, but no one answers. The teacher dials another number, then another.
"You just keep calling, so you are not teaching anymore," he said.
Zions said the same student who disappeared under Peavy's watch had been scheduled with him for an elective rotation, but never showed up.
The student was with the principal or other administrators on those days, Zions said, but he didn't know it at the time. "If he's not in my class, how do I stop him from running?"
Assistant superintendent Jeffrey Eakins, who heads up a district work group overseeing the ESE reforms, said elopement prevention is enormously complicated.
The district wants to provide uniformity in its procedures, even though different campuses are laid out differently.
Not only do officials have to figure out how to guard school exits without sacrificing manpower in the hallways; they also must understand a child's individual psychology to prevent the child from trying to run.
"This is kind of ground-floor work we're doing," he said, adding that the group had trouble finding models from other districts.
Information on elopement will be woven into new mandatory training for teachers and ESE aides.
Eakins said he did not know enough about Peavy's case to discuss it. The School Board is scheduled Tuesday to vote to suspend her without pay. She is entitled to a hearing before a decision is made on whether to fire her.
Eakins said he is not surprised that some teachers fear they will suffer severe consequences if a child runs away. "If it were me, I'd be concerned," he said. "Their awareness is so heightened."
Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected]