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  1. Opinion

Hillsborough schools must fix failure to protect special needs students

The Hillsborough County School District doesn't need another week or even another day to realize that teachers' aides failed in their responsibility to protect Jennifer Caballero, an 11-year-old with Down syndrome who walked away from a school gym and drowned in a campus pond last month. The tragedy has also exposed a shockingly lax attitude about managing special needs students and controlling crises. The district investigation needs to find whether these shortcomings are unique to Rodgers Middle School or prevalent countywide.

Superintendent MaryEllen Elia announced Tuesday she had suspended five of those aides pending an internal review into Caballero's death. The move came as the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office closed the case without filing criminal charges. Elia said she is not looking for a "scapegoat" but for ways to protect children and regain the confidence of parents. Yet holding to account those responsible is essential to understanding what led to this accidental death and restoring public faith in the district's ability to keep children safe.

The sheriff's investigation offers a trove of evidence that the aides were asleep at the switch, even after being warned by at least one school official that they needed to watch Caballero more closely. A physical education teacher in the gym had to leave his duties to chase Caballero down as four aides sat in the bleachers. (A fifth was on a smoking break.) The PE teacher was so concerned about the aides' inattention that he warned an assistant principal about it weeks before the tragedy occurred. "I am sending you this email to remind you to speak to the aides," coach Garry Gawrych wrote in mid October. Asked by detectives later what would have helped, the coach replied: "Aides who will pay attention."

Common sense, if not the job description, says that aides for special needs students need to, above all, closely supervise children in their care. That did not happen with Caballero. And if there are larger problems with the special needs program, Elia needs to address those too. The review board she empaneled is full of insiders who hardly have an interest in exposing training or operational policies as deficient. Both clearly are. An outside inquiry would provide a fresh perspective that is more in keeping with the seriousness of this tragedy. That probe can start by looking at the apparent lack of any protocol, at least at Rodgers, for locating a missing student. A school's immediate response to these potentially life-and-death situations should rely on more than the staff's quick thinking, heroism or blind luck.

Elia wants the review panel to report by December. That is an appropriate timetable to look at immediate safety steps. But the real question is whether this case reflects institutional deficiencies, both with the level of vigilance in the special needs program and with crisis management at individual schools. The School Board has a duty to answer how it intends to prevent such a tragic episode from happening again.