Thursday, April 26, 2018
Education

School officials should send a message beyond backside covering

Here's a message the higher-ups who run Hillsborough County schools should be sending in the midst of the current crisis:

Something went horribly wrong. We messed up. And we should be looking hard at the bigger picture to keep it from ever happening again, not sometimes sounding like we're all about covering our collective backsides.

That last part in particular.

The current crisis isn't just test scores or school grades, it's actual kids — specifically, those who are part of exceptional student education, or ESE. (Educators do like their acronyms.)

This one was a nightmare and a tragedy both: Jennifer Caballero, an 11-year-old Rodgers Middle School student with Down syndrome, wandered away from the gym last year and drowned in a pond behind the school.

This was followed by the news that another special-needs student had died months earlier after she choked on a school bus — an incident made more troubling because School Board members weren't told about it right after it happened.

Which doesn't exactly inspire confidence that you have transparency over the aforementioned backside-covering.

Investigations ensued in Jennifer's death. People got fired. ESE got a new general director. Safety issues are being examined and aides trained. Sounds positive.

But you also get this sense of: There, we fixed it.

Times reporter Marlene Sokol recently reported an eyebrow-raising detail in this case and a worrisome one when it comes to that part about the bigger picture.

One of Jennifer's two classroom teachers, a veteran educator named Jodi White, had been raising red flags to her bosses about concerns and conditions for special-needs kids months before Jennifer's death, according to emails obtained by the Times.

The teacher repeatedly inquired — some might say even agitated — for enough one-on-one aides that she clearly believed were needed. At one point, she said they had one-third of the aides they should have. She said they were so short-staffed they were "cleaning and sterilizing more than instructing."

At one point, she wrote this about trying to get a one-on-one aide for a student: "Almost a year has passed and still no word. We do not have the needed adult supervision for ALL the students."

But in the hundreds of pages of investigations, in the dozens of people interviewed following Jennifer's death, no one talked to White, the teacher in the trenches who, by the look of those emails, had something to say. Administrators told investigators they knew of no ongoing problems in the school's ESE program.

Officials say they correctly focused on people who were part of what played out that day when Jennifer wandered from the gym. They said they stayed out of the way of the Sheriff's Office investigation. At a School Board meeting this week, officials said they had indeed responded to the teacher's concerns.

But in the aftermath of a crisis, with talk of safety and of change, maybe they should be paying particular attention to what a teacher in the trenches saw.

And maybe the message should sound less like "Nothing more to see here" and more like a clearheaded look at what was going on to make sure this never happens again.

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