Saturday, December 16, 2017
Public safety

Five school workers suspended, but no criminal charges in Riverview girl's drowning

RIVERVIEW — Two weeks before an 11-year-old girl with Down syndrome walked away from her physical education class and drowned in a pond at her school, her PE teacher issued a warning.

The teacher's aides tasked with caring for her and other special-needs students in the gym were inattentive, coach Garry Gawrych told an assistant principal at Rodgers Middle School.

Six aides were assigned to care for 24 special-need students, but the adults would usually just sit on the bleachers, he said.

When students walked away or hid, it was Gawrych who followed, the coach said.

"I can't keep having to run to get one when I have 23 others," Gawrych later told deputies.

On Tuesday, superintendent MaryEllen Elia announced she has put five of those teachers' aides at the Riverview school on paid leave while the district conducts an investigation into the death of Jennifer Caballero.

The district's inquiry comes on the heels of the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office investigation. Deputies closed their case and announced Tuesday that prosecutors will not file charges.

The Sheriff's Office also released its report on Caballero's death, which includes the coach's statements among several hundred pages of transcribed interviews with employees and students. They offer the first glimpse into what happened in the gym the day Jennifer died.

Its release comes just two weeks after the family of another special-needs student, Isabella Herrera, sued in federal court in connection with her death in January.

Isabella went into respiratory distress on a school bus and, according to a sheriff's report, neither the driver nor the aide called 911. District officials say no school report was ever issued, and neither employee on the bus was disciplined.

Isabella was unresponsive when her mother arrived and called 911. She was pronounced dead the next day at a hospital.

In response to the two incidents, Elia has appointed a group to study safety in the exceptional student education department, which serves 29,000 children.

She said she hopes to have results of the district's investigation into Jennifer's death and the work group study in December.

"We are not interested in finding a scapegoat, but we are interested in maintaining the safety and security of our schoolchildren," she said. "We have to do everything we can to retain and regain the confidence of parents who entrust us with their children."

• • •

On Oct. 22, coach Gawrych tossed basketballs to the special-needs students in wheelchairs.

Not all of the children were interested, including the very-mobile 11-year-old girl everyone called Jenny. She ran around the gym, tossing her thick, dark hair from side-to-side.

Meanwhile, four of the six aides sat on the bleachers. One was elsewhere, escorting a student to the front office. The sixth was outside smoking a cigarette.

Gawrych noticed Jenny trying to get under the bleachers. He pulled her out and took her over to the aides. He told two of them to keep their eyes on her, he recalled.

The aides nodded. Gawrych went back to the other students. Then, a minute or two later, aide Patsy Henderson called out:

"Jenny's gone! Jenny's missing!" the coach later told deputies.

The aides started searching. Coach Gawrych frantically ran around the school grounds.

About five to seven minutes later, one aide told principal Sharon Tumicki. She radioed for help, and the school resource deputy called the Sheriff's Office.

The sheriff's report shows the depth of an exhaustive response. Deputies searched not only the gym but also classrooms, bathrooms, lockers, buses, teachers' cars, neighboring homes and businesses, abandoned vehicles, sheds, parked boats.

They knocked on the doors of sex offenders. They tracked footprints, gave dogs the scent of Jenny. Her mother called her name over the school intercom, hoping to stir her from hiding.

But was it too late?

Investigators concluded that Jenny was alone on the 700- to 750-foot-walk to the pond. The water was murky, with visibility of only a few inches, and the bottom took a steep drop about 10 yards out. It took authorities about five hours to find Jenny there.

• • •

What could have been done differently? a deputy asked during the three-week investigation.

No one interviewed could point to a school district policy for dealing with a missing student. The school's principal said the employees should have notified an administrator right away.

What about the aide on a smoke break. Is that allowed? a deputy asked.

"Hell, no," principal Tumicki replied.

It is unclear if anyone had heeded Gawrych's warning.

On Oct. 16, a week after Gawrych told assistant principal Shawn Livingston about the inattentive aides, Gawrych followed up with an email, as Livingston had requested:

Mr. Livingston, I am sending you this email to remind you to speak with the aides.

Jenny's parents are not sure what they plan to do. Jenny's mother, Elizabeth Rosas, is not ready to talk about the report. She wants to read a copy herself.

"I need to see what it says," she said Tuesday. They're in pain, she told a reporter while crying over the phone. "We don't want other kids to go through the same thing," she said.

It was hard for coach Gawrych, too. He took time off work after Jenny was found in the pond.

Could anything have been done differently? a deputy asked him during his interview.

The coach had an answer: "Aides who pay attention."

Times staff writers Patty Ryan and Laura C. Morel contributed to this report. Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3433.

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