TAMPA – A split Hillsborough County School Board voted Tuesday to fire a special education teacher accused of failing to keep track of a disabled student who walked five miles home during the school day in fall 2012.
The 4-3 decision upholding a recommendation from Schools Superintendent MaryEllen Elia to fire Pierce Middle School teacher Ingrid Peavy came during a hearing that lasted nearly four hours and ran much like a court proceeding.
Board members April Griffin, Cindy Stuart and Susan Valdes opposed the decision.
The superintendent’s recommendation was based on a single factor: A finding of negligence following a review of the case by the child protective investigations division of the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office.
“The finding rendered Ms. Peavy incompetent to serve as a classroom teacher,” school district attorney Tom Gonzalez said.
The sheriff’s office Tuesday refused to release the results of its investigation, saying it could do so only if it arose from a criminal matter. The office asked to interview Peavy for its investigation but never got back to her, she said Tuesday, after she insisted her union representative be present.
Peavy, who had been suspended without pay after the incident, fought tears as she was questioned by Gonzalez and her attorney, Mark Herdman. Peavy opted to have the hearing held in public.
The student who left the campus was a sixth-grader diagnosed with emotional and behavioral disabilities who had Peavy as a teacher in his fourth- and fifth-period classes and as co-techer seventh-period. He frequently missed classes, sometimes staying with the school resource deputy and other times with the exceptional student education specialist.
The boy only had only made it to Peavy’s fourth period class about three times during the month before the incident on Oct. 29, 2012, she said.
That day, she forgot to call specialist Lisa Haglund immediately after noticing the student wasn’t in fourth period — a step required by a new crisis management plan put in place a week before on Oct. 22.
That was the same day a disabled Rodgers Middle School student walked out of the gym and drowned in a pond. The plan lays out how schools should handle “elopers,” students who frequently wander.
“I thought it was like every other day,” Peavy said Tuesday. “I hardly see him after third period.”
She did eventually make the call, when she noticed the boy wasn’t in her seventh-period class. She said she knew she had made a mistake but insisted she did not deliberately choose against following the plan.
“He fell through the cracks and I wanted to be the one teacher who made a difference,” she said.
Colleagues of Peavy’s testified during the hearing and comforted her afterwards, describing her as a compassionate, talented teacher. They said the student had a history of wandering.
“He could tolerate approximately two to three hours of schooling,” Haglund said. “After that, he fell apart.”
The board made its final decision to fire Peavy in a second vote. Valdes first made a motion to overturn the superintendent’s recommendation and it failed 4-3.
“I don’t believe the superintendent met her version of proof in this case,” Valdes said, adding that it was a one-time incident that did not prove Peavy incompetent.
Board members Doretha Edgecomb, Carol Kurdell, Candy Olson and Stacy White voted to fire Peavy.
“I’m going to argue the news headlines of Oct. 22 should have put you on high alert as an ESE teacher,” White said.
Some were concerned that the board was making its decision only on the child protection investigators’ report. Griffin recalled a case in 2009 in which a teacher found to be abusive or neglectful was allowed to remain in his job. In that situation, the board was able to consider a district investigation.
Olson said the Sheriff’s Office report was valid.
“It was a very tough decision, but when you have independent professionals make a decision, you can’t ignore it,” she said. “I’m hoping we can offer her another job with the district.”
Peavy’s attorney, Herdman, said he plans to take the case to Hillsborough County Circuit Court.
“This was a very complex, ongoing situation that a lot of very good people tried very hard to deal with,” he said. “There’s no question a verified finding can be considered. But it should not be and cannot be the sole determining factor.”