While conceding that they aren't the only ones responsible for the death of Rodgers Middle School student Jenny Caballero, the Hillsborough County School Board voted on Tuesday, Jan. 15 to demote Rodgers Middle School's principal and assistant principal and fire a teacher's aide and Exceptional Student Education attendant.
The action came after a lengthy debate over who should ultimately be held accountible for the Oct. 22 drowning of the 11-year-old girl with Down syndrome.
Under the supervision of five aides and attendants, Jenny Caballero wandered out of the Riverview school's gymnasium. Her body was found hours later in a nearby pond.
Following an investigation by both Hillsborough County Sheriff's Child Protective Investigative Division and the school district's Office of Professional Standards that concluded the staff had failed to keep an eye on the little girl, teacher's aide Terrance Sowa and ESE attendant Patricia Tobin were fired by the school board last night.
Aide Patsy Henderson retired following the girl's death and aide Micaela Scipio resigned.
No disciplinary action will be taken against ESE attendant Britney Rios, who was on her lunch break when the little girl disappeared.
In separate actions, the school board voted 6-1 to demote Rodgers Principal Sharon Tumicki and Assistant Principal Shawn Livingston. Board member Susan Valdes cast the dissenting vote, saying she thought both administrators should be fired.
A number of speakers at the meeting agreed with Valdes, saying the demotion of the administrators and the firing of the aides represented a double standard.
"While I welcome the demotions and terminations, they only scratch the surface of what is needed," said David Heurtevent, vice president of Autism Rights Watch, who traveled from France to address the school board. "Those persons are only scapegoats."
Jose Colindres, CEO of The Brink Foundation of Tampa, a family advocacy foundation, said he didn't feel the board's actions went far enough.
He said accountibility for the girl's death should extend beyond the Rodgers Middle School staff to the leadership of the school system.
"Why does the accountibility stop there? In reviewing the interviews with staff, I was struck by how little training staff had," said Colindres. "The assistant principal had been there a few months or so and didn't understand his duties. The principal had been there for 22 years and couldn't tell you if there was a policy on missing children."
Colindres also was dismayed by Superintendent MaryEllen Elia's recommendation Tuesday to spend millions of dollars on security measures at schools in the wake of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Yet, she didn't propose additional funding for special education following the deaths of Caballero and Sessums Elementary School second-grader Bella Herrera, a 7-year-old with muscular dystrophy who died in January 2012.
Herrera's parents are suing the school district, claiming that their daughter's death resulted from the failure of a bus driver and an aide to react appropriately when the little girl began choking while riding the school bus.
Colindres said something as simple as a $25 GPS child locator bracelet could have saved Jenny's life.
"We need to look at our priorities in this district," he said.
Valdes was equally curious as to why the administrators were being demoted while the noninstructional staff was fired.
Daniel Valdez, director of human resources for the school district, said state statutes outline actions that can be taken against instructional and noninstructional personnel.
"For noninstructional personnel," he said, "there is no provision for demotion."
Board member Doretha Edgecomb said she thought Elia was equally culpable in the child's death.
"If this is a systemic problem, then the superintendent is just as responsible as the aides," she said.
Board member Candy Olson disagreed.
"I don't think this is a district-level issue," she said. She noted that Jenny was able to slip away because the attendants and aides weren't paying attention.
"They shouldn't be off doing something else. They need to take care of the children," she said. "I hate to do it but there has to be consequences. I don't see how we cannot do what is recommended."
Board member Stacy White also felt the superintendent's recommendation was fair in regard to demoting Tumicki and Livingston.
"I believe you should remove ineffective leaders from their leadership positions," he said.
"Placing blame will not help the cause of finding a way to keep students safe every single day," said board member Carol Kurdell. "But the people directly responsible bear the brunt of that burden."
However, the board members agreed the little girl's death demonstrates the need for more training in dealing with special education students.
"I think in the coming months, you'll see a situation where we rebuild the ESE program from the top down," said White.