On the same afternoon they appointed a new leader for the exceptional student education department, Hillsborough County school board members were told they have a systemic problem keeping track of certain students who tend to run away from school.
Maryann Parks, a veteran of more than three decades in working with special-needs students, was approved unanimously as the general director of the department that serves more than 29,000 students.
She replaces Joyce Wieland, who late last year requested a transfer as the department reeled from the deaths of two students.
Parks, 56, has worked with the school district since 1979 – all of those years working with special-needs students. That is in contrast to her predecessor, who had limited experience in the department.
“I don’t think there is a systemic issue, but it takes only one issue to bring it to the top,” Parks said after her appointment. “I think we can always do better.”
The department has been under scrutiny since the two student deaths last year.
Isabella Herrera, a second-grader with a neuromuscular disorder who attended Sessums Elementary, died in January 2012, a day after a bus ride home during which she experienced medical issues. Neither the driver nor aide called 911 as she turned blue and stopped breathing in her wheelchair.
Only one school board member knew about the death before a federal lawsuit was filed several months later.
Jennifer Caballero, who had Down syndrome and attended Rodgers Middle, drowned in October after wandering away unnoticed from a gym class.
Parks said she wants to work with the transportation and nursing sections of the district to see how to better serve the varying needs of students. She also wants to reach out to local universities to improve recruitment and retention efforts to offset the turnover issue in the department.
“It’s all about kids,” she said. “I’ve never been afraid of change.”
Aaron Zions, a social studies teacher at Pierce Middle School, said the district does need to keep better track of students with a history of eloping – or running – from classes.
Zions came to speak in defense of Pierce teacher Ingrid Peavy, who was suspended without pay by the board. She is accused of failing to keep track of a student who last fall walked 5 miles home during the school day without the knowledge of Pierce staff.
“I’m not saying there is not culpability here,” Zions said. “But you’re dropping this on the wrong person.”
He said the student was supposed to be in his class as part of his schedule, but he had never attended in the prior 60 days. He said many times the student was in the front office or with the school resource officer.
“Teachers get the blame,” Zions said, “but we had no chance to stop this.”
Board members expressed concern about holding teachers accountable for student actions that might be out of their control.
“I think we are putting teachers in a very, very difficult predicament,” said Cindy Stuart.
“It’s a bigger picture,” added Susan Valdes. “Teachers have a huge accountability placed on them. It’s a huge weight.”
Some board members were unhappy that Peavy’s case was reported in the media days before it came to them for consideration.
They voted 5-2 to change their policy to keep disciplinary cases out of the public eye until the day they meet. Today, those cases might come to light when the board agenda comes out the Wednesday before a Tuesday meeting.
“I am not at all trying to hide anything,” said board member Doretha Edgecomb. “I want to be legal.”
“There is that thought of innocent until proven guilty,” added board chairwoman April Griffin.
In other matters, board members: