Saturday, January 20, 2018
Education

School in shock after Riverview girl's drowning

RIVERVIEW

Jennifer Caballero hid under the bleachers, away from her classmates and six teacher's aides, away from the other 140 or so students also in the gym.

A teacher saw Jennifer — an 11-year-old girl with Down syndrome — and took her back to rejoin her class of about 20.

But sometime within the next half hour on Monday afternoon, Jennifer walked out of the Rodgers Middle School gym and onto a grassy field.

Six hours later, deputies found her dead in a retention pond on school grounds.

On Tuesday, a key question remained: How did she escape the notice of six teacher's aides — especially when someone knew she had already tried to hide once?

The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office is investigating. The Hillsborough County School District is awaiting the outcome before it launches its own inquiry.

Shirley Lawyer, president of the Down Syndrome Network of Tampa Bay, said she is disturbed by the apparent lack of vigilance.

"I think there needs to be some discipline and some re-training districtwide," she said. "It's hard to believe that the child was able to escape the eyes of six adults."

On Tuesday, Jennifer's family grieved at their Riverview home, where relatives spilled onto the yard. They asked for privacy.

The Medical Examiner's Office confirmed what everyone had assumed: Jennifer, who went by the nickname Jenny, had drowned. It was an accident.

But could it have been prevented?

Deputies said they are still interviewing people who were in the gym to try to answer that.

The teacher's union is making a lawyer available to any of the school's employees who are members and request one, said Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins, executive director of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association.

At Tuesday afternoon's School Board meeting, superintendent MaryEllen Elia thanked the deputies and talked of a promise she made to Jenny's parents.

"I told them that we would do everything we can to find out exactly what happened and that we would do everything we can to make sure this never happens again," she said.

Acknowledging many are asking questions, she said, "It's important that we not rush to a judgment. The Sheriff's Office has been tirelessly working to gather all the facts. We have been assisting them in their investigation and when the facts are in, we will take any and all action necessary."

The exact timeline of Jenny's disappearance and death is not yet clear.

A medical examiner's report said school employees noticed she was gone about 30 minutes after she was discovered hiding under the bleachers.

Deputies said that about 12:30 p.m., two students told school employees they had seen her walk away.

About 1 p.m., the Sheriff's Office got a call. Deputies arrived 10 minutes later. Their numbers grew to about 80.

Two bloodhounds sniffed the grounds. Deputies on ATVs searched. Divers moved through murky ponds where there was "zero visibility and reports of alligators," said sheriff's spokesman Larry McKinnon.

Elizabeth Rosas, Jenny's mother, spoke through the school's intercom system, asking her daughter to come out of hiding.

She walked through the fields with a bullhorn, calling, "Jenny!"

About 6:15 p.m., while searching the second of three ponds on school grounds, deputies found her. It was a crushing moment for law enforcement and school officials.

"Many of them have children of their own, and I know they were heartbroken at that outcome," Elia said.

Many wondered how Jenny, who neighbors say walked with a limp, scaled a 4-foot-tall chain-link fence. But her family said she could climb a fence, Sheriff David Gee said.

Lawyer, who has a 22-year-old daughter with Down syndrome, said such skills aren't uncommon. "A lot of our kids are actually very good escape artists," she said.

Lillian Dehghan, president of FRIENDS, a Hillsborough County Down syndrome support group, said children with Down syndrome often are naturally curious. They "live in the moment," she said.

Patrick Canavan, a school psychologist who works for the district's crisis team, met with teachers at Rodgers Middle early Tuesday. He instructed them in how to arrange counseling for their students.

And he dealt with the teachers' strong reactions. Some worried about their own children.

"The whole staff was devastated," Canavan said. "Teachers are very, very emotional. The administrative staff is on a roller coaster, trying to be in control and at the same time crying."

Students made cards and letters. Some slipped notes of sympathy to school administrators with requests that they be passed to Jenny's family.

In the media center, which backs up to the pond where Jenny died, students were allowed to discuss their feelings with staff and work on cards and posters to hang on school walls.

"R.I.P. Jenny," some of them read.

Classes continued as scheduled with the exception of physical education, which took place in a multipurpose room, school district spokeswoman Linda Cobbe said.

The moderate-income school has 894 students, including 30 in special education, according to a recent school district report. The latest state records show 61 percent qualify for free or reduced-priced lunches.

The pond is one of three on the 88 acres the school district owns there. It is about 100 yards from the gym.

Following three drownings of special needs children in the bay area this year, Jenny's death was all the more unsettling, as it happened at school.

"At our schools, we have so many kids who come from environments that are very dangerous," Canavan said. "But bad things don't happen at school."

Times staff writers Marissa Lang and Elizabeth Behrman and researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3433.

     
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