Sunday, August 19, 2018
Education

Teacher's emails reveal problems at Rodgers months before student's death

TAMPA

Classrooms for disabled students were so understaffed there wasn't time to give kids all the care they needed. Bathroom duty was so overwhelming, staff spent more time cleaning than teaching.

Jodi White, a veteran teacher, repeatedly reported these and other conditions affecting special-needs kids at Rodgers Middle School in Riverview. Her emails, obtained by the Tampa Bay Times, went to the principal's office and area headquarters in the months before Jennifer Caballero, an 11-year-old with Down syndrome, drowned in a pond behind the school.

But White's concerns never came to light during two investigations — one by the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office, another by the district — that together were billed as a comprehensive look at the factors that contributed to Jennifer's death.

Administrators who oversee exceptional student education told investigators they knew of no ongoing problems in the program at Rodgers.

And while investigators interviewed more than 50 people and produced reports totaling more than 700 pages, they did not speak to White, even though she was one of Jennifer's two classroom teachers.

She also supervised two aides who were in the crowded gym where Jennifer was last seen before slipping out of the school undetected.

The resulting narrative blamed her death on mistakes by a handful of staffers and never publicly aired broader issues at Rodgers.

Asked about the significance of White's emails, district officials said staffing for exceptional student education, or ESE, was not a problem at Rodgers and that the inquiry into Jennifer's death logically focused on events related to the gym.

The district fired three employees, including assistant principal Shawn Livingston, who contested the action publicly last week. Others were demoted, resigned or took transfers.

As far as anyone on the outside knew, everything else was fine.

• • •

White's emails began before the start of last school year.

On Aug. 2, she asked if one-on-one aides could be hired for two students with documented medical or behavioral needs. "Last year we started with not enough help," she wrote. "So I am hoping we can be proactive instead of reactive this year."

On Aug. 21, she asked why the district hadn't advertised for an ESE aide she needed.

On Aug. 29, she wrote that one of the two children who needed aides was eating her excrement and smearing it everywhere.

White reminded the principal that she and another teacher had long since completed paperwork for the other high-needs child.

"Almost a year has passed and still no word," she wrote. "We do not have the needed adult supervision for ALL the students."

Two aides were doing the work of six, she said. "We're cleaning and sterilizing more than instructing," she wrote on Sept. 11 to Jo Jennings, an administrator in east Hillsborough. "With all our focus on one child, it's not benefitting the other six students who require hand-over-hand assistance or closer medical attention."

On Sept. 20, she asked about an aide for a new student, who also had substantial medical needs.

One of the other two was having seizures almost daily. White wrote on Sept. 26: "How can five of seven of my students have full-time nurses at home" but not in school?

Aides were hired at times. But when they left, White worried they would not be replaced. She also was troubled that staff was asked to make 33 revisions in individual educational plan documents.

Some of the emails went to Jennings and Shannon Lesperance, an area ESE supervisor.

But the district's report tells a different story.

Page 3 describes an interview with area director Chris Farkas. The investigator "asked Mr. Farkas if he was ever made aware that there were issues with the ESE department at Rodgers and he advised he was not. Mr. Farkas advised that he checked with Ms. Lesperance and Mr. Jennings on the evening of the incident and neither of them was aware of any existing problems with the ESE department at Rodgers."

On Page 10, Lesperance states her office was "made aware of issues regarding scheduling and coverage of ESE classes" but said there was no issue with the aides.

Maryann Parks, who became the district's ESE general director in April, said the area office was aware of White's concerns and was helping with scheduling. "I don't think we thought it was a problem," she said. "I know that we gave our support there."

Though officials heard what White had to say, they did not always agree, and they made sure staffing levels were safe, Parks said.

• • •

The months after Jennifer's death found the district under intense scrutiny over its treatment of ESE students. Ten days after the drowning, it was revealed that another special-needs student, Isabella Herrera, had died January 2012 after struggling to breathe on a district school bus, and neither the public nor School Board members were told.

In addition to changing ESE directors, superintendent MaryEllen Elia assembled a work group to examine safety issues. Improvements are ongoing, with mandatory training for ESE aides scheduled this week.

The fact that White was not interviewed did not go unnoticed. Terrance Sowa, a fired Rodgers aide, cited the omission in a statement granted to civil servants when they part.

There weren't enough aides to move students safely around campus, Sowa said. And often "the aides are responsible for pushing two wheelchairs each as well as the ambulatory student holding on to the wheelchair."

Efforts to interview White were unsuccessful. Records show she has taught in the district since 2002 with no record of state discipline. But twice in recent years, supervisors have criticized her work habits, including a formal reprimand in 2009 that said her attendance was problematic and that she complained too much.

To be sure, classroom conditions might have had no bearing on Jennifer's death. But did the district steer its investigation around White because of what she might say?

"No," said Daniel Valdez, the deputy superintendent over human resources.

Elia agreed. "Clearly, we as administrators don't control the Sheriff's Office," she said. Nor do they tell their Office of Professional Standards who to interview, she said.

Valdez and Elia said the logical course of inquiry was the gym, the gym staff, and the response when Jennifer disappeared.

No one accused the district of being negligent in staffing, Elia said, as the investigations showed four adults were in the gym when Jennifer ran off.

She also said it is not unusual for teachers to send emails expressing their concerns about a situation, and administrators responded appropriately.

• • •

Months after Jennifer's death, White appeared at Sowa's grievance hearing and complained about not being interviewed.

After listening, Valdez said he asked Farkas, the area director, to meet with her and the school's new principal. Weeks later, when Valdez called her to follow up, "she said thank you, and things are much better," he said.

At the close of the school year, the district ended separate ESE classes at Rodgers. About a dozen students were transferred, as was White.

Tampa attorney Stephen Diaco said he is representing the Caballero family for free, adding that both sides want to improve safety in Jennifer's memory.

"I couldn't be more pleased with their response," he said of school officials. "Did something horrible happen? Absolutely. But it was not done with an evil heart."

Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected]

     
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