TAMPA — An assistant principal fired after a special-needs student drowned at Rodgers Middle School sought to clear his name on Tuesday, telling the Hillsborough County School Board, “I’ve done everything I could to make sure everyone was safe on the campus.”
Shawn Livingston, a first-year administrator who oversaw physical education among other departments at Rodgers, lost his job after 11-year-old Jenny Caballero wandered away from a gym class and drowned in a pond on Oct. 22.
He was charged with incompetence and willful neglect of duty by Superintendent MaryEllen Elia in December and fired by the school board on her recommendation Jan. 15.
Elia offered Livingston a demotion to a teaching position, but Livingston said accepting the job would have precluded him from appealing the charges against him.
“I had no problem being a teacher,” Livingston testified. “I was looking forward to going back. My biggest issue was the charges. It was a matter of me not wanting those items attached to my name.”
Tuesday’s event at district headquarters was known technically as a termination hearing appeal, but it had the air of a courtroom proceeding with lawyers representing Elia and Livingston and sworn witnesses questioned and cross-examined.
Even if he is absolved, it is unlikely Livingston would serve again at Rodgers. In February, the district declined to renominate him as an assistant principal, akin to a vote of no confidence. However, he would become eligible for back pay if the School Board ruled his contract was violated.
A key issue appeared to be whether Livingston responded appropriately to concerns brought by physical education teachers.
Caballero, who had Down syndrome, walked away from a gym class taught by Garry Gawrych at Rodgers and drowned in a pond on school property. Gawrych testified Tuesday that he had special-needs aides in his gym class that “weren’t doing their jobs” and on occasion “their eyes just weren’t on them.”
The gym teacher said he had several conversations with Livingston about the inattention, but Livingston later testified that was not the case. Livingston said he was the one who noticed the disengagement of Gawrych’s classroom aides, and told Gawrych to send him an e-mail reminding him to discuss the issue with the aides.
The gym teacher sent such an e-mail on Oct. 16, a Tuesday. With a short-handed administrative staff, serious personnel, disciplinary and other issues brewing on the campus, and a short workweek with no school on Friday, Livingston said he was unable to set up a meeting with the aides that week. Caballero died the following Monday.
Karen Gabbadon, a Tampa attorney representing Elia, asked Livingston if Gawrych was mistaken in testifying that the discussions took place. “He is not mistaken,” Livingston responded. “He was wrong.”
Gabbadon later recalled Gawrych to the stand, who repeated that he believed he had several conversations with his vice principal on the issue of the inattentive aides.
Gabbadon called another gym teacher, Marva Jackson, to the stand to discuss her concerns that as the only female in the department, she had to supervise the girls’ locker room single-handedly.
Jackson said she repeatedly requested help. But Livingston said he arranged for an interim fix: Girls would be allowed into the locker room in small groups, with the male teachers supervising them outside the locker room as they waited their turn. But he said he did not have the authority to hire another gym teacher.
Former Rodgers Principal Sharon Tumicki broke down on the stand as she lauded her former assistant. When asked by Livingston’s lawyer, Robert McKee, if she regretted hiring Livingston, she responded through sobs, “Every day I wish I wouldn’t have hired him so he wouldn’t have to go through this.”
Asked if she had any issues with his performance, she responded, “None. He was incredible. He is so good for kids. He is a leader. He is fun. He was dealing with everything that needed to be dealt with. I couldn’t keep up with him.”
In an emotional day, Livingston also teared up on the stand as he described his difficulties landing a new job. He currently teaches adult education classes at a Polk County technical college.
Tumicki, the former Rodgers principal, was demoted to assistant principal and is no longer at the school. Gym teacher Gawrych retired. The five classroom aides have all either retired, resigned, or were fired.
No decision was expected on Livingston’s fate for some time. It could take as long as two weeks to compile a transcript of the hearing, then both sides will have 14 days from the time they receive transcripts to submit recommended orders, proposed findings of fact, and conclusions of law.