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. Trigaux: How Moffitt Cancer's M2Gen startup won $75 million from Hearst


    TAMPA — A Moffitt Cancer Center spin-off that's building a massive genetic data base of individual patient cancer information just caught the attention of a deep-pocketed health care investor.

    Richard P. Malloch is the president of Hearst Business Media, which is announcing a $75 million investment in M2Gen, the for-profit cancer informatics unit spun off by Tampa's Moffitt Cancer Center. Malloch's job is to find innovative investments for the Hearst family fortune. A substantial amount has been invested in health care, financial and the transportation and logistics industries.
  2. A boat lays on its side off the shore of Sainte-Anne on the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, early Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2017, after the passing of Hurricane Maria. [Dominique Chomereau-Lamotte | Associated Press]
  3. 7.1 magnitude quake kills at least 149, collapses buildings in Mexico


    MEXICO CITY — A magnitude 7.1 earthquake stunned central Mexico on Tuesday, killing at least 149 people as buildings collapsed in plumes of dust. Thousands fled into the streets in panic, and many stayed to help rescue those trapped.

    A woman is lifted on a stretcher from of a building that collapsed during an earthquake in Mexico City, Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2017. [Rebecca Blackwell | Associated Press]
  4. FHP seeks semitrailer truck driver that left fiery wreck on I-75


    TAMPA — The Florida Highway Patrol is looking for the driver of a semitrailer truck that sped off from an Interstate 75 crash that left another car burning on Tuesday afternoon.

    Troopers were looking for the driver of a semitrailer truck that sped off from an accident scene on Interstate 75 in Tampa on Tuesday afternoon that caused a car to catch fire. [Courtesy of Florida Highway Patrol]
  5. Joe Maddon gets warm reception in return to the Trop

    The Heater

    ST. PETERSBURG — The night was arranged to honor former Rays manager Joe Maddon in his first visit back to the Trop, and the standing ovation from the bipartisan crowd and scoreboard video tribute seemed proper acknowledgments of his hefty role in the Rays' success during his nine-year stint.

    Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon (70) talks with reporters during a press conference before the start of the game between the Chicago Cubs and the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla. on Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2017.