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Sunday, Feb 26, 2017

Rodgers assistant principal fights demotion after drowning

TAMPA - Shawn Livingston, the assistant principal removed from his job after the death of a special-needs student at Rodgers Middle School, said Thursday he will fight to have his name cleared. "I was not responsible for the events of that day or any of the events leading up to that day," Livingston said in his attorney's Ybor City office. "I have not made a mistake." Livingston's name — and his reputation — have been thrust into the spotlight in the aftermath of the drowning of 11-year-old Jenny Caballero. She's the Rodgers Middle School student with Down syndrome who wandered away from a crowded gym class and drowned in a pond Oct. 22. The Hillsborough County School District released the results of its investigation into Jenny's death this week. Superintendent MaryEllen Elia singled out several people for their actions, or lack of actions.
Livingston, who began his first assistant principal job at Rodgers in August, was removed from his job Wednesday and has been recommended for demotion to a teacher's job. Rodgers' Principal Sharon Tumicki has been recommended for demotion to assistant principal. Two special-needs aides likely will be fired, another aide has retired and a fourth one resigned. Garry Gawrych, the physical education coach who was in charge of the gym at the time Jenny disappeared, also retired. Gawrych had told school district and Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office investigators that he had talked to Livingston about the aides not watching their students properly. Livingston said Thursday that conversation with Gawrych never occurred. He said he went to the gym six days before Jenny's death after a custodian complained about kids taking food and drinks there after lunch. When he walked in, he saw some of the aides and some of the special-needs students sitting on the bleachers. As a teacher who used to work with exceptional education students, he knew that was wrong. Livingston said he asked Gawrych to send him an email reminding him to speak to the aides about their lack of engagement. "I am sending you this email to remind you to speak with the aides," Gawrych wrote to Livingston on Oct. 16. In recommending the demotions for Tumicki and Livingston, Elia said they failed to act on complaints about the inattentiveness of the aides. Livingston's attorney, Robert McKee, disagrees. "This was not an emergency situation and was not presented as such," said McKee, who will help Livingston appeal his proposed demotion if it is approved by the school board Tuesday. McKee said the school district has moved to place blame and hold employees responsible for Jenny's tragic death. "Something went terribly awry that day and a young girl lost her life," the attorney said. "Blame does not belong on him. "He wants to have his name cleared," McKee added. "He doesn't want his name linked to the death of a child." Livingston, a father of three, said he just wants to protect and repair his reputation. "That's my name," he said, sitting beside his attorney. "That's everything about me." He struggles daily with Jenny's death. "That was a very big loss that we all had to experience," Livingston said. "My heart goes out to the family."

rshaw@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7999