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Teacher termination hearing today in disabled student case

TAMPA — During fourth period on a fall day more than a year ago, a middle school student who often didn’t show up to his class with special education teacher Ingrid Peavy was missing again.

This time, Peavy forgot to call a school administrator — until seventh period.

“Let’s call now,” said the co-teacher, Stephanie Garcia. “It’s seventh period already, but we still have to call.”

The student, who is disabled, didn’t show because he had walked five miles home from Pierce Middle School in Town ’N Country, in the middle of the school day Oct. 29, 2012. Peavy, accused of failing to keep track of the child, was suspended without pay.

What happened that day will be brought up again today, as the Hillsborough County School Board meets to decide whether to fire Peavy.

Details of the incident are included in a report the school district released to the Tribune on Monday. The student’s disappearance made headlines as special education in the district came under fire, a week after Rodgers Middle special education student Jenny Caballero walked away unsupervised from gym class and drowned in a pond.

The school district’s professional standards department began investigating Peavy after a call came to Pierce from the boy’s home saying he had walked there from school.

According to the investigative report, which was completed in September, teachers at the school said the child was a chronic “eloper,” refusing to go to classes daily. The student received a referral three days before the incident for continuing to leave class to wander around the school.

One week before the incident, on Oct. 22, a new crisis management plan was created at Pierce Middle that includes how to handle students who wander. The plan forms the basis for much of the school district’s investigation into the incident.

Pierce Middle teachers received an email the next day letting them know that they must stick to the new plan, which calls for teachers to contact the exceptional student education specialist if a student does not arrive to class by the time the tardy bell rings.

At that point, the plan says, parents should be notified and law enforcement should be called to intervene if the child leaves campus.

The investigative report says that the student attended the first three periods of school on Oct. 29 and then went to the office of School Resource Deputy Chris Brown. Brown said she told the child to come back after the bell rang but the report says Brown “did not go looking for” the student. That’s when the student walked home.

Twenty-one Pierce teachers and administrators were interviewed by the district’s professional standards department for its investigation into Peavy. Some said she followed protocol and others said she didn’t.

Pierce Middle psychologist Donna Gruosso called the new crisis management plan “ambitious,” according to the report.

“It was bound to fall apart because it was just too difficult to work, in Dr. Gruosso’s opinion,” the report states.

One teacher said an email was inadequate as a way to alert staff about the new plan.

When asked if the crisis management plan had been followed, the teacher, Aron Zions, told investigators, “How could you? How could anybody? In this kind of plan, you have to meet to make sure it is understood.”

Zions appeared at a school board meeting in April to defend Peavy.

During that meeting, board members Cindy Stuart and Susan Valdes expressed concern about holding teachers accountable for student actions that might be out of their control.

“It’s a bigger picture,” Valdes said then. “Teachers have a huge accountability placed on them. It’s a huge weight.”

Also during that meeting, the case resulted in a change in board policy.

Some board members said they were unhappy there were news reports of Peavy’s case before it came to the board’s attention.

The board voted 5-2 to keep disciplinary cases out of the public eye until the day it meets.

Peavy’s attorney, Mark Herdman, could not be reached for comment Monday.

Peavy will appear before the school board today in what is called an employee termination hearing, scheduled for 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Raymond O. Shelton School Administrative Center, 901 E. Kennedy Blvd.

The hearing is open to the public.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story misstated what teacher Stephanie Garcia knew about the student’s absence.

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Twitter: @ErinKTBO

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