Emails from a veteran teacher in the months before an 11-year-old girl with Down syndrome wandered away from her class and drowned in a nearby pond should have told Hillsborough County school administrators that the oversight of special needs students was seriously lacking. The district is making changes in the aftermath of this tragedy, but why administrators ignored the teacher's pleas for help in caring for students with special needs remains concerning.
Emails obtained by the Tampa Bay Times' Marlene Sokol show that teacher Jodi White repeatedly expressed concern over a range of conditions at Rodgers Middle School in Riverview. In October, Jennifer Caballero died after walking away from her PE class and entering a pond behind the school. In the months before that accident, White complained that classrooms for special needs students were understaffed and that aides were overworked. The result, she wrote one administrator, was that "we're cleaning and sterilizing more than instructing," and disabled students were getting overlooked in the process. "It's not meant as a (griping) session," she wrote. "It's just the facts."
White's emails are troubling, because they pointed to systemic problems over extended periods of time. And though she sent her emails up through the chain of command in the months before Caballero died, White was not interviewed by the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office or by the district in two separate investigations. The district said White was not sought out because officials focused on staff members who were responsible for supervising Caballero at the time. That was a poor decision that only ensured the School Board and the public would get an incomplete picture of the environment that existed at Rodgers when Caballero went missing. White's observations were timely, relevant and goal-oriented, and her participation in the investigations would have been helpful.
The district has appointed a new boss over special needs and instituted other reforms. But it needs to re-examine its staffing levels and training to ensure that this population is adequately served. The board should also ask the administration to explain why White's concerns are only now becoming public. In its internal report on the death, a senior administrator said he asked around and officials were not aware of any problems at Rodgers. The school board should determine if staff members were fudging the facts or if administrators are too far removed from what's really happening on campus. Either calls out for corrective action.