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Hillsborough seeks to fire, demote Rodgers Middle workers after student's death

Family and friends of Jennifer Caballero comfort one another outside Rodgers Middle School in Riverview in October after hearing that the girl with Down syndrome drowned in a retention pond.

EVE EDELHEIT | Times (2012)

Family and friends of Jennifer Caballero comfort one another outside Rodgers Middle School in Riverview in October after hearing that the girl with Down syndrome drowned in a retention pond.

TAMPA — Everyone has a different perspective on the death of student Jennifer Caballero.

It's well known that Jennifer had Down syndrome, that she was in a crowded gym class on Oct. 22, that she wandered off and drowned in a pond behind Rodgers Middle School in Riverview.

But even as the Hillsborough County School District prepares to fire two employees and demote two administrators in connection with her death, there are various accounts of the incident in an investigative report issued Wednesday.

A physical education coach said he told the exceptional-student education aides to pay more attention to the kids, including Jennifer. The aides said they don't remember being warned.

The coach said Jennifer was prone to running and hiding. The principal and assistant principal said they never knew that.

Supervisors said the aides should have known they were not supposed to take cigarette breaks or spend time sitting on bleachers while on duty. The aides said nobody told them that.

And one of the administrators targeted for demotion has an attorney pledging to fight back.

"Where does it end?" said Robert McKee, who represents assistant principal Shawn Livingston. "Don't sacrifice this guy on the altar of satisfying public outcry for action."

Superintendent MaryEllen Elia said the firings and demotions are needed to hold staff accountable even though, she said, "What they experienced was an educator's worst nightmare."

Principal Sharon Tumicki will become an assistant principal, she said. Livingston will be offered a teaching job.

Aide Terrance J. Sowa, who was outside smoking around the time Jennifer disappeared, will be fired, subject to a School Board vote on Tuesday. So will Patricia Tobin, who was sitting on a bleacher.

Both appear to have made conscious decisions to look for Jennifer on their own instead of alerting the administration immediately that she had disappeared, according to a school district report.

Two other aides would have been fired, Elia said. But Patsy Henderson retired and Micaela Scipio resigned. Aide Britney Rios, it turned out, was at lunch when Jennifer disappeared.

Physical education coach Garrick Gawrych has retired, the district said. In its report, investigators criticized him for not using a school radio to alert administrators during the early stages of the search.

Jennifer's parents, after hearing the news on Wednesday, said the district did not contact them about the investigation.

"This is all very difficult," said Elizabeth Rosas, her mother. "We will never get accustomed to living without her."

• • •

Jennifer was the second special-needs student to die last year in circumstances that involved school district staff.

Isabella Herrera, a second-grader with a neuromuscular disorder, died in January a day after suffering respiratory distress on a school bus. Neither the driver nor the aide called 911.

Her parents have a lawsuit pending in federal court.

The district, meanwhile, is looking at everything from training methods to the way medical information is shared in an attempt to prevent future tragedies.

Elia assembled a work group in November, which returned in December with 88 pages of recommendations for improvement. Some are already under way or in place, she said. Others will take months.

"This is not something that was taken lightly by any educator in this district, particularly our leaders and our exceptional ed teachers," Elia said.

"Many of them know the difficulty of working with students who often don't understand that their actions can be potentially very harmful to them. It reaffirmed the importance of the kind of oversight that's necessary."

The School Board will discuss the project on Jan. 31.

But Elia insisted the school employees must be held responsible. "The accountability must be fair, yet commensurate with the depths of the tragedy," she said.

• • •

The district's disciplinary report indicates how a confluence of circumstances and missteps created a dangerous situation.

• A clerical error at Corr Elementary School, which Jennifer previously attended, interfered with the transfer process when she entered middle school. Because of that, administrators and teachers at Rodgers might not have known everything they needed to about her.

• One of the other PE coaches at Rodgers had called in sick numerous times, including the day of her disappearance. When the school could not arrange a substitute, the gym classes had to be combined.

• The ESE aides had various levels of training. For three, investigators found no evidence of any training. Scipio told an investigator she had no ESE instruction at all.

• While Gawrych said he complained repeatedly to Livingston that the aides were not attentive, Livingston tells a different story.

In the report, Livingston said he noticed while visiting the gym on another matter that the ESE aides were sitting on the bleachers.

He asked Gawrych to send him an email, reminding him to talk to the aides. Gawrych sent the email. Jennifer died before he acted on it.

McKee, his attorney, insists Livingston did not know of anything that would constitute a danger. Rather, the ESE students were not getting much out of the class. "The kids should have been up and moving around like they're supposed to in a gym class," he said.

Elia, however, said that everyone from the principal on down needed to face consequences.

That list includes Tumicki, the principal, who was criticized in the report for not knowing of any written procedure for children who go missing; and did not counsel the ESE aides even though she saw that they were not engaging the children at gym.

It also includes Livingston, who did not take action concerning the aides. Tobin, Tumicki, Henderson, Scipio and Gawrych could not be reached for comment. Sowa declined to comment.

"The aides are being held accountable for their inattentiveness," Elia said. "Mr. Livingston is being held accountable for not following up on a request in a timely manner. … He made a mistake and needs to account for it."

Staff writers Laura C. Morel and Jessica Vander Velde contributed to this report. Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or sokol@tampabay.com.

Hillsborough seeks to fire, demote Rodgers Middle workers after student's death 01/09/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 11:51pm]
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