TAMPA — Concerns raised in 2012 by a special-education teacher at Rodgers Middle School were not ignored, school district officials insisted on Tuesday.
Responding to an article in Monday's Tampa Bay Times, superintendent MaryEllen Elia and assistant superintendent George Gaffney described for the School Board steps administrators took to address complaints raised by teacher Jodi White.
White, who has not spoken with the Times, was the afternoon teacher for Jennifer Caballero, an 11-year-old with Down syndrome who drowned behind the Riverview middle school on Oct. 22 after leaving a crowded gym class.
In emails White sent in the months before Jennifer's death, she pleaded for help for three of her high-needs students and said her two aides were overworked. In one, she said her staff was cleaning more than teaching.
However, White was not interviewed in two investigations that followed Jennifer's death, one by the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office and the other by the district.
Gaffney, who researched the issue this week, told the board of multiple responses to White's complaints.
On Sept. 4, he said, an administrator visited the school and helped with the scheduling of aides. Later that month, he said, the area office responded to another of White's emails after clarifying the staffing system with the principal. Administrators also met with Rodgers' assistant principal to discuss scheduling concerns and recommended changes, he said.
The district provided equipment to help lift physically disabled students, he said. And administrators contacted the principal over White's concerns that teachers had to revise individual education plans.
"So we just want to recap that a number of times, there was contact at the school site with administrators at the school site and with the teacher," Elia said.
Gaffney also said that when administrators observed White's class, conditions were not always as severe as she described.
As for why White was never interviewed, Elia answered as she did previously: "When the sheriff's investigators are on site, we don't do anything. We don't talk about anybody who we think they should talk to. In fact, they are very clear that they want us to be really far away from the investigation that they are doing, and it's appropriate, I believe, to have that occur."
When district officials did their own investigation, Elia said, "they were addressing the issues that related to the tragedy that occurred to Jenny Caballero, and who was with her at the time in the gymnasium and how the response was at the time."
In the aftermath of Jennifer's death and that of student Isabella Herrera, the district has taken steps to improve safety for exceptional student education, or ESE, students. The first mandatory training for ESE aides begins this morning.
Focus groups are being conducted to get parent input on the district's ESE programs, and Gaffney announced that instead of hand-selecting parents to participate — a method that had drawn some criticism — the district will hold a lottery.
Separately, board members discussed changes to the state's Jessica Lunsford Act, which no longer will give Hillsborough the ability to set its own standards for restricting access to school campuses by contractors.
Under the state law, workers can be banned if they have been convicted of crimes of moral turpitude such as murder, kidnapping, terrorism and several kinds of sex offenses. Hillsborough, until now, also has considered drug offenses and assaults.
"It concerns me greatly that we cannot add any reasons for excluding contractors," board member Candy Olson said.
Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected]