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Editorials

A crisis for Elia

Staff
Published:   |   Updated: March 14, 2013 at 01:30 AM

MaryEllen Elia has mostly drawn praise for her leadership during her seven years as Hillsborough County school superintendent.

But she has a mess on her hands now that represents a genuine crisis for her administration.

A series of tragic events raises serious questions about the district's supervision of special-needs students. The school system has appointed a task force to review the cases and policies, but it must be absolutely transparent and unsparing in determining whether these were isolated incidents or evidence of a system-wide failure.

It is hard to believe that a school district that has a national reputation for academic excellence and earned a $100 million grant from the Gates Foundation could not instill the rigorous protocols necessary to ensure the safety of these children.

Yet two have died under the school system's care within the past year. In an infuriating case, 11-year-old Jenny Caballero, who had Down syndrome, wandered away from a physical education class at Rodgers Middle School and drowned in a nearby pond a few weeks ago.

A Hillsborough County Sheriff Office' investigation found no criminal act but documented an appalling indifference by the aides charged with overseeing special-needs children.

The physical education teacher even had complained to an assistant principal that the aides seemed more interested in sitting on the bleachers than watching the children. Six days before the tragedy, the PE teacher emailed the administrator, reminding him to talk to the aides. Nothing was done.

When Jenny slipped away, apparently one aide was taking a smoke break.

Elia has suspended the five aides involved, though emphasizes, "We're not trying to find a scapegoat."

It is not scapegoating to hold people accountable for failing to watch children in their care.

But the fault extends beyond the aides. Why didn't the school administration respond to the PE teacher's warning?

When deputies asked the coach whether anything could have prevented the drowning, he said, "Aides who will pay attention."

The aides said they had received little training, and apparently the school was ill-prepared to mount a search for a missing child.

District employees also seemed ill-equipped to handle a medical emergency involving a 7-year-old disabled girl last January. Isabella Herrera died after choking while on a school bus. No one on the bus called 911 as the girl turned blue and stopped breathing.

Other incidents involving special-needs children: In September a bus driver pushed an 8-year-old girl off the bus, breaking her ankle and resulting in aggravated child abuse charges. In early October a temporary teacher at Seminole Heights Elementary also was charged with child abuse after rubbing a shoe in the face of a 5-year-old.

All these cases, and complaints from some of our letter writers, suggest the district has a serious problem.

Obviously, more training should be required, and Elia should consider whether low-paid aides are the best choice for the challenging task of supervising special-needs children.

Consideration should be given to adding higher fences and other security features and bolstering personnel at schools with large numbers of special-needs children. And putting these children in a gym class with 120 kids, as Jenny was, seems a risky proposition.

Thought might be given to placing electronic tracking brackets on children prone to run off.

The task force may find additional problems and develop other solutions, but Elia should not wait for its conclusions to begin taking every step possible to improve child protections immediately.

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