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Sunday, Oct 26, 2014
Commentary

The full story behind special education teacher’s firing

Published:

Last week our school board took part in a teacher termination hearing that was extremely difficult for everyone involved, especially the teacher who lost her job. No one left the hearing feeling good about the outcome.

The hearing and the end result were widely reported in the local media and have been the subject of newspaper columns. I want to clarify what led to the unfortunate termination, and to share some things that did not come out in the hearing.

By all accounts, the teacher in question is a caring person who enjoyed working with special-education children. She was suspended after she failed to follow a plan put in place at her school to provide supervision for a special-education student known to skip class.

In October 2012, when the student was supposed to be in this teacher’s class, he left campus and walked approximately five miles to his home. Fortunately, he was unharmed.

Though the facts of the case are troubling, we had no intention of firing the teacher. We did mete out discipline — such as suspensions and letters of reprimand — to some of the staff at the school who had some responsibility in the incident. The attorney handling the case for the district stated several times that we did not intend to fire the teacher.

So, why did we seek termination?

We were not moving forward on this matter until Child Protective Investigations completed its investigation. CPI is an arm of the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office and is by law charged with the investigation of possible abuse, neglect or abandonment. We are required by law to report such cases.

CPI investigated the case and concluded the teacher neglected her duty to supervise the student. The district, and the teacher’s attorney, questioned the finding, but the finding cannot be appealed or reversed.

When the investigation of a teacher ends in a conclusion that there are verified finds of abuse, neglect or abandonment, I do not want that teacher in direct supervision of students. That’s for the protection of students, the district — and the teacher.

What followed was a lengthy and deliberate process, much of which has been reported in the local media. What has not been publicly discussed is the effort on the part of the district, the teachers’ union, and the teacher’s attorney to find a solution.

Before the hearing, the district offered the teacher another job. It was not a teaching job and did not include direct supervision of students. It would have involved a cut in pay. However, the teacher would still be employed with benefits. That offer was turned down.

The teacher exercised her right to a public hearing before the school board. I have made clear to her attorney and to the Classroom Teachers Association that we remain open to discuss further employment with the district.

I was not happy bringing the case before the board. I knew board members would struggle, as I did, with the decision. I know all the board members were sympathetic toward the teacher.

In presenting our case, at no time did we portray the teacher as uncaring or incompetent, and we do not consider her to be. However, the fact that the teacher neglected to follow a detailed supervision plan and the student walked several miles home was a serious safety breach. His guardian was right to be upset.

And the most salient fact was that the sheriff’s CPI division identified the teacher as being guilty of neglect, and that is now on her record.

By a vote of 4-3, the teacher was terminated.

This is larger than a routine internal matter. We have a responsibility to make the community aware of the factors that led to my recommendation and to the board’s vote. Thank you for the opportunity to set the record straight on this unusual case, and for the opportunity to make known the efforts made to avoid the unfortunate outcome.

MaryEllen Elia is the superintendent of the Hillsborough County public school system.

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