Sunday, April 22, 2018
Education

Tears, defiance mark hearing on former assistant principal at Rodgers Middle

TAMPA — Just before a three-day weekend last October, assistant principal Shawn Livingston had his hands full at Rodgers Middle School.

He dealt with a teacher accused of berating students and a student who had mocked another teacher.

A basketball game was planned with the air conditioning due to go out, and other administrators were away at meetings.

When the Riverview school reopened on Monday, Oct. 22, special-needs student Jennifer Caballero, 11, walked out of her gym class undetected and drowned in a nearby pond.

Livingston was fired three months later. On Tuesday, he tried to convince the Hillsborough County School Board that he did not act incompetently and that his career should not have been destroyed.

At issue is whether he should have acted on an Oct. 16 conversation about exceptional student education aides who sat on the bleachers during gym class.

"Plain and simple, this was a matter of inaction," said Karen Gabbadon, attorney for the school district.

Becoming emotional at times, Livingston said he wants to clear his name.

"As far as the death of a child, we all are responsible and we all play a part," he said when board member Candy Olson asked if he would accept any responsibility.

Garry Gawrych, the physical education coach who was teaching a combined class when Jennifer disappeared, said that at least twice he complained to Livingston about the aides.

"The aides weren't doing their job," said Gawrych, who later resigned. "They liked to sit a lot. I really didn't think that they paid enough attention to the kids."

He said he told Livingston, "I can't take this anymore; the aides aren't helping me."

Livingston denied those conversations took place.

The district, as evidence, used an Oct. 16 email from Gawrych to Livingston. It said, "I am sending you this email to remind you to speak with the aides."

Livingston said he was not concerned about safety when he asked for the email. Rather, he said, he walked into Gawrych's class and saw some students playing basketball while others sat around with the aides.

He felt the kids were not getting the instruction they needed, he said, but did not think the matter was urgent. So he tended to the other issues on his plate.

Tuesday's testimony showed how the school struggled to give its ESE students an appropriate experience during times they were included with their nondisabled peers.

When possible, ESE students took P.E. in a multipurpose room that was considered safer than the gym. But when P.E. teachers did not come to work, classes often were combined. Gawrych was asked what training he had in special-needs physical education. "None," he replied.

Livingston, meanwhile, was a new administrator when he came to Rodgers in summer 2012. He had been to two or three days of training, he said.

He said that months before the drowning he identified safety issues at the school, including a large pothole and what appeared to be ceiling mold, and tried to get the district to address them.

"I tried to head things off," he said. "I've done everything I could to make sure everyone was safe on the campus."

Two ESE aides were fired after Jennifer's death. Two more left voluntarily, along with Gawrych.

If Livingston prevails, he could be eligible for four months' back pay. He and principal Sharon Tumicki were offered demotions in January. While Livingston filed a grievance, which removed the option of working as a teacher, Tumicki was transferred and given the rank of assistant principal.

Through tears, Tumicki praised Livingston. "He is incredible," she said. "He is so great for the kids. He is a leader. He is fun. I couldn't keep up with him."

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