Sunday, December 17, 2017
Public safety

Girl with Down syndrome found dead near Riverview school

RIVERVIEW — An 11-year-old girl with Down syndrome who slipped away from Rodgers Middle School even as adults watched her class was found dead Monday evening in a murky pond near the school.

Jennifer Caballero, who went by Jenny and whose mother held her in her arms at the bus stop every morning before school, walked away from her physical education class at midday Monday.

The class, which had about 20 children with special needs, was in the gym with about 140 other students, some of them playing basketball, said school district spokeswoman Linda Cobbe. Six teacher aides were assigned to watch Jenny's class.

Hillsborough County school superintendent MaryEllen Elia, who appeared at the Riverview school Monday evening, could not say how the child slipped away.

"There's no question that there are some things that have to be investigated," Elia said, promising the district would work with the Sheriff's Office to investigate.

The pond is about 100 yards from the gym and surrounded by a 4-foot fence. Though Jenny was a special needs child, she had the ability to climb a fence, said Sheriff David Gee.

"We don't know how long she was not under direct supervision," said Gee, who also appeared at the school. "We do not believe it was a very long time."

What they do know is the following:

About 12:30 p.m., shortly after Jenny's class went to the gym after lunch, employees realized she was missing after two students said they had seen her walk out a door.

Earlier, the girl had tried to go under the bleachers by herself, authorities said. Gee said supervisors said they were keeping an eye on her because they thought she was still trying to hide.

Officials put the school on lockdown. At dismissal time, school officials did a "controlled release," watching those coming and going to make sure Jenny did not leave with someone.

For five hours, the Sheriff's Office searched for Jenny, a 5-foot girl with dark pigtails.

Deputies first searched the interior of the school, checking every locker and closet. They used canine units on the ground and a helicopter in the air.

Two ponds are near the school. A dive team first searched the one in front of the school. About 5:15 p.m., it started on the second one, behind the school, according to sheriff's spokesman Larry McKinnon. About an hour later, the team discovered the body in 12 feet of water, about 20 feet from the shoreline.

Jenny becomes at least the fourth special-needs child in this area this year to have been found dead in a body of water despite nearby adult supervision.

In April, a 9-year-old girl with autism attending a birthday party in Riverview slipped away unnoticed and drowned in a pond. In June, a 4-year-old Holiday boy with autism slid out a window after his mother had put him to bed and ended up in a neighbor's pool. And in September, a 15-year-old with autism drowned in a Temple Terrace municipal pool while at a charter school party.

Rodgers Middle, which serves grades 6 to 8, has about 1,000 students. Jenny had attended the school for only about six weeks. She had transferred from another school within the district, though it was not clear Monday night which one, according to Cobbe.

Scores of neighbors turned up at the school Monday, offering their help. Many left in tears and questioned how a child, especially a disabled one, could disappear that fast.

Jenny's family has lived in the area nearly 20 years, said neighbor Heather Boffo. Jenny was the youngest of three daughters; their father works in the farming industry, and their mother stays at home. Neither speaks English, and Jenny's teen sister had to do most of the talking with deputies, said Boffo.

Through the Sheriff's Office, the family declined interviews.

Jenny was a sweet child, neighbors said, and on afternoons when the family had the windows open, neighbors could hear her laughing at cartoons on TV.

"You hear her screaming because she's just joyful," said Boffo.

She walked with a limp and was never far from her mother.

"She's always got a hold of her mama's hand," said neighbor Lorraine Boffo, Heather's mother.

Neighbors never knew the child to disappear. They questioned not only how she walked away from the school but also why deputies did not search the second pond until hours later.

"That should've been the first place they looked," said Heather Boffo.

McKinnon said the first thought was that the child was still inside the school, which is why deputies scoured the building. Jenny's mother walked the school grounds, too, hoping the sound of her voice might lure her.

The canine unit, which includes two bloodhounds, didn't pick up any scents as it circled the school. McKinnon said the ponds were dark and soupy, and the dive teams had to work slowly and methodically.

McKinnon added that no one knows yet when Jenny might have entered the water. "I don't think there's anyone who can say we should've done anything different," he said. "It's a tragedy."

Gee said as much when he choked up at his news conference Monday evening.

"I can't even begin to tell you how sad it is," he said.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3433.

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