Hillsborough School Board fires, demotes Rodgers Middle School staff

TAMPA — After a lengthy discussion, the Hillsborough County School Board on Tuesday approved demoting one member of the Rodgers Middle School staff and firing three others in connection with the drowning of student Jennifer Caballero.

Eleven-year-old Jennifer, who had Down syndrome, was in a crowded gym class when she wandered off and drowned in a nearby pond in October.

"This is the worst thing that can happen to an educator," said board member Susan Valdes, who said discipline should have extended beyond the school.

The board took action against:

• Principal Sharon Tumicki, 45. A principal since 2010, Tumicki is accused of not knowing written emergency procedures and not taking action although she knew the exceptional student education aides were not engaging with the students during gym class.

Tumicki will become assistant principal of a school to be determined, in keeping with tenure policy that calls for her to be placed in the last position in which she was successful.

• Assistant principal Shawn Livingston, 37. Livingston is accused of failing to take action after learning the aides were not engaging their students. He has hired an attorney. The district planned to demote him to his last successful position, a teacher.

• Patricia Tobin, 55. The attendant acknowledged she was sitting on the bleachers during class. When Jennifer was discovered missing, Tobin is accused of searching herself instead of alerting administrators immediately.

• Terrance Sowa, 63, who joined the district in 2008 as an ESE aide. He was taking a cigarette break around the time Jennifer ran off. He also is accused of searching for her on his own before notifying administrators.

The board voted unanimously to fire the aides. The vote was 6-1 to demote the principal and dismiss the assistant principal, with Valdes casting the dissenting vote. She said she wanted to fire them. Lawyer Tom Gonzalez, however said that because Livingston is contesting the board action, he is officially terminated.

Several speakers from the audience said they felt it unfair to single out workers at the school — that the problems in ESE are broader and extend to the administration.

"These persons are scapegoats," said David Heurtevent, vice president of the international Autism Rights Watch.

Heurtevent said his organization is not satisfied with the efforts the district is making to improve safety for its 29,000 special education students.

Valdes said she was troubled by the different treatment given the aides and the administrators and asked why superintendent MaryEllen Elia wasn't disciplined.

Member Candy Olson said, "I don't think this is a district-level issue. If it were, we'd have it all over the place."

She said she was offended to learn that Sowa had been smoking a cigarette, that the other aides were sitting on the bleachers, and that Livingston did not accept his share of responsibility.

Member Doretha Edgecomb, responding to suggestions that high-level administrators be disciplined in Jennifer's death and also that of Isabella Herrera in January, said that by that logic, board members would be held accountable as well.

"None of us directly caused the death of these two young ladies," she said. "But we are certainly part of the bigger system in which they occurred."

Hillsborough School Board fires, demotes Rodgers Middle School staff 01/15/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 15, 2013 11:40pm]

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