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Hillsborough teacher fired for letting special-needs student wander away

TAMPA — Family and co-workers and three sympathetic Hillsborough County School Board members could not save the job of special-education teacher Ingrid Peavy.

Voting 4-3 on Tuesday, the School Board upheld superintendent MaryEllen Elia's recommendation to fire Peavy for failing to report that a sixth-grade student, who ran away often, was missing from her class at Pierce Middle School. The child walked about 6 miles home and arrived unharmed.

The incident occurred Oct. 29, 2012 — a week after the drowning at Rodgers Middle School of special-needs student Jennifer Caballero. While some board members argued at Tuesday's termination hearing that firing Peavy, 34, was a knee-jerk reaction to Jennifer's death, others said the tragedy should have placed all staff on high alert.

"Thank goodness nothing happened to this student," said board Chairwoman Carol Kurdell, who supported the firing. "But we'd be having a different conversation if something had."

The hearing brought to light difficult issues in a district still recovering from the deaths of two children in exceptional student education in 2012.

The law requires schools to educate ESE students in the least restrictive environment. The staff at Pierce acknowledged that, in hindsight, they might have moved this child to an alternative school or designed a shorter day for him.

"He was very strong-willed and felt that if he didn't want to be on the school campus, he would simply leave," said Lisa Haglund, who was the ESE specialist at Pierce and now teaches at Martinez Middle School, during her testimony. "He could tolerate approximately two to three hours of schooling, and after that he would fall apart."

Peavy was his fourth-period teacher and offered to keep him for fifth to cut down on transitions, but he seldom attended.

School employees sought to meet his needs through a series of meetings and plans in 2012. A crisis plan was written Oct. 22, which Haglund emailed to the child's teachers on Oct. 23. Peavy acknowledged she read it. The plan said to call Haglund or the student affairs office if the child went missing.

When asked why she didn't do so on Oct. 29, Peavy said she assumed the child was with Haglund or other school officials he spent time with when he didn't want to be in class.

"I thought it was like any other day," Peavy testified. "That's always how it's been, and I didn't think anything different."

In addition to the difficulties of serving special-needs students, the hearing also spotlighted deep divisions on the School Board.

Those who opposed the firing — Susan Valdes, April Griffin and Cindy Stuart — said Elia had not made a strong enough case against Peavy. Any number of employees at Pierce could have found themselves in her shoes, Stuart said. "We're not helping any of these students by firing one teacher," she said.

The proceedings were confusing at times, as the board was given instructions by legal staff that differed from what Elia wrote in her letter of termination. The letter alleged Peavy violated the teacher tenure act and included the phrases "persistent violation of or willful refusal to obey laws," and "failure to demonstrate competency" in "instruction, evaluation and management of students."

But school district attorney Tom Gonzalez said the district would rest its case on the fact that Child Protective Investigations, a civilian arm of the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, verified inadequate supervision.

Although Pierce staffers said the agency's interviews were brief and superficial, Gonzalez said the finding all but compelled the district to remove Peavy from the classroom.

Griffin tried to argue that in at least one instance, the district has kept a teacher who had a verified finding of abuse or neglect. But the lawyers told her that incident could not be discussed.

Member Doretha Edgecomb, meanwhile, questioned lawyers about the language in Elia's dismissal letter. "There was nothing brought up that she wasn't a competent teacher. There was nothing that her evaluations were not up to par, or about her management of students."

But in the end she voted with Kurdell, Candy Olson and Stacy White to terminate.

Emotional during her testimony, Peavy sobbed during the last hour of the hearing. She has been suspended without pay since April.

Her attorney, Mark Herdman, said, "some other school district will be lucky to have her." Fellow Pierce teacher Aron Zions told reporters, "I don't want another ESE student. If I have the option, I'll refuse."

Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins, executive director of the teachers' union, said she was appalled at the board's vote.

"I honestly don't know how, based on the facts presented and the questions asked, how they drew that conclusion," she said. "It was so wrong on so many levels."

Marlene Sokol can be reached at sokol@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3356.

Hillsborough teacher fired for letting special-needs student wander away 02/04/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 4, 2014 10:20pm]
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