The punishment meted out against administrators and staffers in the death of student Jennifer Caballero was an appropriate first step for the Hillsborough County School District. But the district will need to put real money on the table and show a new commitment to special-needs education to improve services to the most vulnerable schoolchildren.
The range and swiftness of the disciplinary action the district announced last week was fitting given the casual indifference that contributed to this tragedy. It is bad enough than an 11-year-old with Down syndrome and a history of wandering away from her teachers could leave a crowded gymnasium unnoticed by the staff. There is no excuse, either, that Rodgers Middle School in Riverview had no formal process for reporting a student missing or coordinating any search. Caballero drowned in a pond behind the campus.
The firing of two exceptional-student-education aides and the demotion of Rodgers' principal and assistant principal should send a message of accountability up and down the line. The lack of supervision was appalling; so was the lack of urgency among senior school administrators in addressing the aides' history of complacency. The district also formed a task force to examine training and other procedures in the special-needs program. Some reform proposals are promising, but the district will need to back them up with money.
Superintendent MaryEllen Elia told the Tampa Bay Times editorial board this week that she supports two far-reaching measures. The first would be to require the new director of exceptional education to be certified in the field. That credential would give the new director added standing with the staff and a sensitivity to the complex demands of serving special-needs students.
Elia also said she is open to a salary study that examines the pay for special-education aides and attendants. As Times staff writer Marlene Sokol reported Sunday, the pay in Hillsborough ranks near the bottom of salaries for comparable jobs in 31 Florida counties. The starting wage for these jobs, $8.42 an hour, is less than what school bus drivers are paid and only just above the minimum wage. Elia acknowledges that the wage scales are "depressed." She and the School Board need to acknowledge the connection between pay and responsibility and find the money to bring these salaries into line with the extensive level of care these staffers provide. Higher pay, stronger leadership and new training opportunities would make special education a more rewarding career and an attraction for good employees. That's the first step in breaking a cycle of mediocrity.