TAMPA — The assistant principal of a middle school where a special-needs child drowned in 2012 was neither incompetent, nor willfully neglectful, the Hillsborough County School Board agreed Tuesday.
By a 3-2 vote, the board went against district administrators who fired Shawn Livingston from his job at Rodgers Middle School, deciding to pay him his lost wages and benefits from January to June.
Whether he will return to work remains to be seen. The district did not renew his contract. But his lawyer, Robert McKee, is contesting that action as well.
"I waited for this day for a very long time," Livingston said after the vote. "All I can do is count my blessings. I can't even put it in words."
Livingston, 38, was new to the role of assistant principal at the Riverview school when Jennifer Caballero, an 11-year-old with Down syndrome, wandered away from a crowded physical education class and climbed into a pond behind the school on Oct. 22.
Her body was recovered that evening.
After investigations by the district and the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, Livingston was one of four school employees who were disciplined.
Several others resigned or retired.
Livingston, whose areas of responsibility included physical education, was blamed for failing to take action when told Jennifer's classroom aides were not engaging with the students during PE class.
But he said he was never made aware of any safety issues. He said he tried to draw attention to other problems at Rodgers — including mold in the ceiling and a large pothole outside — and got no response from the district.
He also said he had to contend with other pressing issues at the school in the days leading up to Jennifer's death.
The district in January tried to demote him to a teaching position. But Livingston said he would have had to acknowledge wrongdoing and opted instead to contest the district's action.
The discussion on Tuesday centered largely on the words the district used to justify his firing — "incompetency" and "willful neglect of duty."
Candy Olson, one of two board members who voted to uphold the firing, said while those terms were emotionally charged, it was important to consider their legal meanings.
"I don't think this gentleman is incompetent in terms of, he can't do anything," she said. She would have liked to see him return to teaching and work his way back up to assistant principal. But, "the aides were not taking care of those children and they were under the supervision of the administrators at that school."
Carol Kurdell agreed. "The person responsible for that very specific area failed that responsibility," she said.
Susan Valdes suggested too much was expected of Livingston, who was new on the job and filling in for other administrators who were off campus. "Did we really set up a young, inspiring and aspiring leader to fail?" she asked. "Things happen quickly in a school campus."
Chairwoman April Griffin pointed to what she considered inconsistencies in the district's actions.
"The fact that we were willing to let this gentleman go back into a classroom, and then because he chose not to, now we're saying that he is incompetent or willfully neglectful of duties is, for me, very troubling," she said.
Doretha Edgecomb called the entire matter "painful, difficult and heart-wrenching." At one point, she asked for more time to review the transcript and pleadings. That motion failed.
Edgecomb then voted with Griffin and Valdes, in Livingston's favor. "I don't believe that we've proven that this was a willful neglect of duty," she said. "I don't want to rush by correcting one mistake with another mistake."
Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected]