Hillsborough schools investigate circumstances surrounding runaway student

TAMPA — The Hillsborough County School District is taking another look at how a special needs student managed to leave school undetected last year, an incident that recently resulted in the suspension of the child's teacher.

School Board member Cindy Stuart asked for the investigation during the April 2 board meeting after hearing co-workers defend Ingrid Peavy, a special education teacher at Pierce Middle School.

"I hope that it's thorough and I hope that the district does its due diligence in finding out what was the environment for this child," Stuart said Monday.

The child left the school and walked 6 miles to his home on Oct. 29, according to the district. A letter from the Office of Professional Standards said Peavy should have been supervising him in accordance with a plan drawn up Oct. 22.

That was the same day Jennifer Caballero, a middle school student with Down syndrome, walked out of a gym class at Rodgers Middle School in Riverview and drowned in a pond.

The child at Pierce was unharmed.

Unlike the case at Rodgers, which triggered a Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office investigation and then an internal investigation by the district, the Pierce matter was referred to the Sheriff's Child Protective Investigations unit.

Records of that investigation are not public, but the district said the investigators verified a case of inadequate supervision.

According to spokesman Stephen Hegarty, that finding made it necessary to suspend Peavy, who was supposed to be in charge of the child. Otherwise, if something happened later and the child was injured, the district would be at fault, Hegarty said.

Peavy's supporters have pointed out that any number of teachers could have been caught in the same position, as the student was prone to "elopement," a term used to describe special needs students who hide or try to flee the school.

Deputy superintendent Dan Valdez said the current investigation by the professional standards office should clarify who was responsible.

"We would want to know: Was a plan in place? Were the people involved with the student aware of the plan? And was that plan followed?" he said.

Peavy's supporters have pointed out that after the incident, the school's principal and an assistant principal were transferred to other schools.

Valdez said he knows of no indication that those transfers were connected to the incident.

Peavy's supervisor, Lisa Haglund, thanked board members last week for having the matter investigated.

In a letter to the board, Haglund said she was "disappointed at the outcome of Ms. Peavy's continued suspension."

She described herself as a dedicated district employee who looks forward to assisting in the investigation.

"We cannot give up on our children and we cannot give up on our teachers," Haglund wrote.

"I am so hopeful that there will be some beneficial procedures and safeguards that arise from this situation, and that there is a happy ending when this is over."

Since Jennifer Caballero's death, district officials have ramped up training in how to prevent and respond to elopements.

The School Board discussion of Peavy's case, meanwhile, prompted a vote to stop publicly posting the names of employees who face disciplinary action. That matter will be discussed again April 23.

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

Hillsborough schools investigate circumstances surrounding runaway student 04/15/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 16, 2013 12:12am]

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