Sunday, May 20, 2018
News Roundup

Hillsborough school where special-needs student died will no longer have special ESE classes

TAMPA — The Hillsborough County School District has transferred about a dozen disabled students out of Rodgers Middle School, where a child with Down syndrome drowned last year.

While students with various disabilities are served at virtually all schools in the district, there are no more full-time exceptional student education classes at the Riverview school.

Asked if the decision was related to the October death of 11-year-old Jennifer Caballero and the scrutiny and firings that followed, ESE general director Maryann Parks said, "No, it had nothing to do with that."

Rather, she said, the change was part of an overall redistribution of resources, which happens routinely in ESE as populations and student needs change.

"We always look at all our units," she said. "We look at the places where the kids live, what their needs are and our enrollment."

Jennifer drowned on Oct. 22 in a pond behind Rodgers after disappearing from a crowded physical education class that combined typical students and those with special needs.

Less than two weeks later, the public and most of the School Board learned that a special-needs child at a different school had died earlier in the year after a medical incident on a school bus.

The deaths, and some lesser cases of staff misconduct on buses and at schools, led the board and district to focus intently on ESE, which serves 29,000 students.

At Rodgers, multiple firings and demotions followed investigations by the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office and the school district. The principal was demoted and transferred. An assistant principal was offered a demotion, then fired when he declined it.

Two ESE aides were fired. Three other employees, including two more aides and a physical education teacher, resigned or retired. Parks took over the top ESE job, replacing former director Joyce Wieland.

Nine of the 22 Rodgers students who were in the classes this past school year are continuing on to high school, so they are not affected by the recent changes, Parks said. Others are being transferred to Eisenhower, Randall, Giunta and Barrington middle schools.

More than 100 students with varying disabilities will remain at the school, Parks said. Those students, depending on their needs, will be taught through a combination of mainstream classes and pull-out services.

The district, meanwhile, has been working to standardize staff training and procedures, particularly when a student tries to run away from school.

But criticism remains from parents who contend the district sometimes segregates disabled students.

Roberta Moore addressed the board Tuesday on behalf of her 10-year-old son Daniel, who has Down syndrome and is being transferred out of Mabry Elementary School in South Tampa.

"I live right around the corner from Mabry," Moore said. "In light of recent events, it is understandable why I am not comfortable with Daniel riding the school bus." Nor does Daniel want to be separated from his friends, she said.

While Moore said she was told her son will attend Chiaramonte, 4 miles south of Mabry, superintendent MaryEllen Elia and assistant superintendent George Gaffney said he is being transferred to Grady Elementary, which is a half-mile away.

Elia and Gaffney said a meeting has been scheduled to address the family's concerns.

Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected]

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