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Firings, Demotions Sought After Probe Into Rodgers Middle School Student’s Death

Superintendent of schools MaryEllen Elia calls for two firings and the demotion of both the principal and assistant principal after a three-month investigation into the death of Jenny Caballero, a Rodgers Middle School student with Down syndrome.

 

A three-month investigation into the drowning death of Rodgers Middle School student Jenny Caballero has resulted in Superintendent MaryEllen Elia calling for the firing of a teacher's aide and an exceptional student education attendant and the demotion of the school's principal and vice principal.

Hillsborough County Schools Superintendent MaryEllen Elia announced her recommendations at a Jan. 9 press conference at school district headquarters.

She said she wants the district to fire teacher's aide Terrance Sowa and ESE attendant Patricia Tobin and to demote Principal Sharon Tumicki and Assistant Principal Shawn Livingston. Her announcement was made after a "thorough investigation" by the district's Professional Standards Department following the Oct. 22 death of 11-year-old Jennifer Caballero.

On that day, Caballero, a special-needs student with Down syndrome, wandered out of the gymnasium of the Riverview middle school. Her body was recovered hours later from a nearby pond.

Although the Hillsborough County State Attorney's Office ruled that no criminal charges were warranted following an investigation by the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office Child Protective Investigations Division, Elia said the school district's internal investigation found that "mistakes were made" by those directly supervising the little girl as well as by members of the administrative staff.

At the time the little girl wandered away from the school gym, her class of special-needs students was being supervised three aides and two exceptional student education attendants.

One of the aides, Patsy Henderson, retired following the girl's death. Another aide, Micaela Scipio, resigned.

No disciplinary action will be taken against attendant Britney Rios, who was on her lunch break when the little girl disappeared.

Had Henderson and Scipio not retired or resigned, Elia said she would have called for them to be terminated.

Those two, along with Sowa and Tobin, who have been on paid leave since Jenny Caballero's death, were most directly responsible for the student's supervision, said Elia.

However, she added that Tumicki and Livingston bear some responsibility, noting that Livingston had been asked to speak with the attendants and aides about their supervision practices and failed to do so.

Prior to the tragedy, physical education coach Garrick Gawrych, who has since resigned, sent Livingston an email warning him about lax supervision. 

Tumicki, said Elia, "was aware there were problems with the aides and did not take action."

Elia noted that she spent time with Tumicki and Livingston the evening Jenny Caballero died and said both were deeply affected by the little girl's death.

"If any of us could change what happened that day, I know we would," she said. "It was an educator's worst nightmare. But it pales in comparison to the loss suffered by the Caballeros."

Livingston should be demoted to a teaching position, Tumicki to assistant principal, Elia said. They are no longer at Rodgers Middle School. Elia said the school board most likely will reassign them to other schools at the Jan. 15 meeting.

In addition, the school district has send a "letter of caution" to Corr Elementary School in Apollo Beach, the school Jenny Caballero attended before moving on to Rodgers.

"Part of the process for a student leaving an elementary school and moving to a middle school is an articulation process," said Elia. "When we went back and looked at all of the factors, we realized there had been a breakdown in that communication, and a warning letter has been sent to Corr."

Elia said there will be no actions against any other school district personnel,  specifically Joyce Wieland, director of exceptional student education for the district before resigning last month.

Elia said Wieland was unaware of the supervision problems at Rodgers Middle School.

Following Jenny Caballero's death, Wieland was transferred to the job of director of student planning, placement and support at her current salary, raising concerns by School Board Chairwoman April Griffin who said she felt the lateral transfer "sent people the wrong message."

Griffin, attending today's press conference, said she was satisfied with the outcome of the school district's investigation.

"I think we did a thorough investigation and the consequences were fair," she said.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, Elia added that procedural changes have been put in place to ensure that children are well supervised at school

"What we have to all understand is this was a tragedy; people are being held accountible for it," she said. "We need to make sure that those things that can possibly happen in any way, that we avert that in a proactive approach."

Elia's recomendations will go before the school board at next week's meeting. Elia says that if they are approved, they will be put in place immediately.

Tumicki and Livingston were unavailable for comment at the time this story was published.

Related content:

School Superintendent to Speak on Death of Rodgers Middle School Student

Answers Sought in Death of Rodgers Middle School Student

Body of Missing Riverview Girl Found in Pond

Protesters Hold School Board Accountable for Deaths of Students

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