Thursday, June 21, 2018
Education

Rodgers Middle School assistant principal fights school district's demotion

TAMPA — It might be simpler if assistant principal Shawn Livingston accepted the school district's demotion and became a teacher again.

But he has hired a lawyer and is fighting to clear his name. He does not want to be blamed for the death of an 11-year-old girl with Down syndrome who drowned at Rodgers Middle School in October.

On Thursday, he spoke for the first time to reporters, saying that contrary to school superintendent MaryEllen Elia's assertions Wednesday, he was not aware that any exceptional-student education aides were being inattentive.

Jennifer Caballero walked away during gym class Oct. 22 and was found several hours later in a pond on school grounds, despite the fact that five aides and her physical education coach were also in the gym.

Middle school coach Garry Gawrych later told investigators that he had repeatedly complained to Livingston that the aides were not attentive.

The coach said he even sent an email reminding Livingston to talk to the aides.

Livingston said the email was a reminder to talk to the group about their failure to engage the students in gym class, not anything else.

"I have not made a mistake," he said during a news conference at his attorney's Ybor office.

He said he cooperated fully with the school district's investigation.

When he found out Elia was recommending he become a teacher again, Livingston says he was shocked.

"The charges? That's my name," he said. "I did not know I was going to be disciplined."

Livingston said he went to the school's gym on Oct. 16 because a school janitor had emailed Livingston about students bringing food into the gym.

On Thursday, Livingston's attorney, Robert McKee, offered a copy of that email.

... We're having an issue in the gym with chips Gatorade etc. etc. just wondering if we could remind the kids before they leave from lunch today not to take the food out

Once in the gym, Livingston noticed the ESE aides sitting in the bleachers with students.

He said Thursday that he was concerned at the time that the students were not engaged.

It was not a matter of neglect but instead an issue of lesson planning, he said.

"The instructional aides should have been part of coach Gawrych's plan," Livingston said.

McKee said the two of them do not want to assign blame to anyone. They stopped short of calling Gawrych a liar.

The coach, who has retired, could not be reached for comment Thursday.

The only other relevant incident, according to McKee, happened a couple of weeks before Jennifer's death, when Livingston was called to the gym to help get a special-needs child down from the bleachers.

Livingston helped bring the child down and then talked to the aide responsible for watching him, McKee said.

"(Livingston) is not part of the problem," the attorney said. "And he could have been part of the solution."

The assistant principal was put on leave Wednesday, when the school district issued its investigative report.

Elia is recommending that the School Board fire two aides and demote Rodgers' principal.

Two other aides would have been fired, Elia said, but one resigned and the other retired.

Livingston was a tenured teacher and has the option of returning to the classroom. But his contract as an assistant principal was through the end of the school year, and in order to demote him, the School Board needs to show probable cause, McKee said.

The attorney has asked for a hearing, which he hopes will take place in the next couple of months.

In the meantime, Livingston will likely teach so he can draw a paycheck while he awaits the school district's decision.

He is married, with three young children.

In the future, though, he wants to return as assistant principal to Rodgers. The school has been dealing with a lot since Jennifer's death, he said.

"I wish I was there to support them," he said.

Times staff writer Laura C. Morel and news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

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