Disabled pupil slips away from Hillsborough school

TAMPA — It was a typical Monday, and the boy was supposed to be in class at Pierce Middle School in Town 'N Country.

Instead, according to Hillsborough County school officials, the disabled student walked out the door and 6 miles to his home.

Teacher Ingrid Peavy, who officials say was supposed to be supervising him, is up next week for the first step toward her dismissal.

The Oct. 29 incident happened exactly a week after Jennifer Caballero, 11, who had Down syndrome, walked out of a gym class at Rodgers Middle School in Riverview and drowned in a pond.

The day after the drowning, superintendent MaryEllen Elia vowed at a School Board meeting to take action preventing such tragedies from happening again.

After two separate investigations, the district demoted Rodgers' principal and fired three other school employees.

A work group is now tightening safety procedures for special needs students throughout the district. Just last week, officials released a new set of training guidelines and checklists to prevent and respond to "elopement," a behavior in which disabled students sometimes run away.

"I certainly think there were too many of these situations over the last year," School Board member Stacy White said Wednesday. "It was a systemic problem."

But White said he is encouraged that the board is about to vote on a new general director of exceptional student education. And members are being kept informed of such incidents at the schools.

That wasn't the case in January 2012, when special-needs student Isabella Herrera, 7, suffered respiratory distress on a school bus and later died.

"We've made changes and I believe we're headed in the right direction," White said.

In the case of the Pierce student, safeguards were supposed to be in effect already.

"A plan of action was put into place on Oct. 22, 2012, for the student to prevent the opportunity for him to leave campus without the staff becoming aware," says a letter to Peavy from Linda Kipley, general manager of professional standards.

The letter did not give any details about the child's disability or identity. But it said the school's then-principal, Henry Lefler, was directly involved.

"He further indicated that you were fully informed, prepared, received, and saved the document outlining the action plan, and that you were the teacher who should have received the student and should have carried out the plan, but failed to do so," Kipley wrote.

The school learned of the incident when the child's mother called, concerned that either no one at the school knew he had left; or that someone there knew but did not notify her.

The Child Protective Investigations division of the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office was consulted the next day and, according to the district, verified a case of inadequate supervision.

Peavy, who has been with the district since 2004, did not return a reporter's call for comment Wednesday. She is listed as an exceptional student education teacher on the website for Pierce, which is an aging school, largely for low-income students, just south of Leto High.

School district spokesman Stephen Hegarty said the system is "moving to terminate that teacher."

"We did all the investigating we needed to do," he said. "We called CPI. When you have a plan in place, you expect that the teacher will do their job."

Peavy is one of six employees listed on Tuesday's School Board agenda for disciplinary action.

The others include Chamberlain High School social studies teacher Phillip Kornell, notified last week of his firing after he was arrested by the Manatee County Sheriff's Office in a child sex sting; and Ronald Budd, who taught in an alternative-to-suspension program. Budd was arrested during spring break on charges he fired a cross bow into an occupied building.

Marlene Sokol can be reached at sokol@tampabay.com (813) 226-3356.

Disabled pupil slips away from Hillsborough school 03/27/13 [Last modified: Thursday, March 28, 2013 12:29am]

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