Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

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.

School officials should send a message beyond backside covering 08/13/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 13, 2013 9:09pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Car bomb kills 13, injures 24 in Baghdad; Islamic State claims responsibility


    BAGHDAD — A car bomb exploded outside a popular ice cream shop in central Baghdad just after midnight today, killing 13 people and wounding 24, hospital and police officials said.

  2. Leaping shark floors angler in Australia


    In The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway's protagonist battles for three days to pull in his prized catch. For Terry Selwood, it came a little more suddenly.

    A 9-foot shark lies on the deck of a fishing boat at Evans Head, Australia on Sunday. Fisherman Terry Selwood said he was left with a badly bruised and bleeding right arm where the shark struck him with a fin as it landed on him on the deck. [Lance Fountain via AP]
  3. Rays rally twice to beat Rangers (w/video)

    The Heater

    ARLINGTON, Texas — Starting Erasmo Ramirez on Monday after he closed out Sunday's marathon win turned out, despite the Rays' best intentions and rigid insistence, to be a bad idea as he gave up four runs without getting through three innings.

    Erasmo Ramirez, starting a day after closing a 15-inning marathon, struggles against the Rangers and comes out after throwing 43 pitches in 21/3 innings.
  4. Britain investigating missed signals over Manchester bomber


    LONDON — Britain's domestic intelligence agency, MI5, is investigating its response to warnings from the public about the threat posed by Salman Abedi, the suicide bomber who killed 22 people and wounded dozens more in an attack at a crowded Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England, last week.

    People gather Monday at St. Ann’s Square in Manchester, England, to view tributes to victims of the suicide bombing that killed 22 on May 22 as a concert by Ariana Grande was concluding.
  5. Trump condemns killing of pair who tried to stop racist rant


    The mayor of Portland, Ore., on Monday urged U.S. officials and organizers to cancel a "Trump Free Speech Rally" and other similar events, saying they are inappropriate and could be dangerous after two men were stabbed to death on a train as they tried to help a pair of young women targeted by an anti-Muslim tirade.

    Coco Douglas, 8, leaves a handmade sign and rocks she painted at a memorial in Portland, Ore., on Saturday for two bystanders who were stabbed to death Friday while trying to stop a man who was yelling anti-Muslim slurs and acting aggressively toward two young women. From left are Coco's brother, Desmond Douglas; her father, Christopher Douglas; and her stepmother, Angel Sauls. [Associated Press]