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Death of girl who drowned in pond leaves grief, questions

TAMPA - They came to the library at Rodgers Middle School, armed with tributes to a friend and questions about how she died. "You were such a nice girl. You would always wait for a hug from me," one student wrote. "I just can't believe it. But I have a question. Who, why and how did you drown? Please Jenny tell me." The student was one of many people struggling for answers Tuesday, the day after Jenny Caballero, an 11-year-old girl with Down syndrome, slipped away from a gym class and was found dead in a nearby pond. As students and teachers attended grief counseling at the Riverview school, detectives from the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office spent hours interviewing teachers and other staff members.
Detectives want to piece together how Jenny was able to walk away unnoticed by adults from a gymnasium packed with 140 students. About 20 of those were special-needs students from Jenny's trainable mentally handicapped class. "It's just heartbreaking," said school board member Carol Kurdell. "My heart aches for the family, for the school," board vice chairwoman April Griffin said. Superintendent MaryEllen Elia, visibly shaken by the tragedy, said she had a message for Jenny's family when she talked with them Monday evening. "I told them we would do everything we can to find out what happened," she told school board members at a regular meeting Tuesday afternoon. "And that we would do everything we can to make sure this never happens again." The school district was still collecting facts on the incident, Elia said, in cooperation with the sheriff's office. She thanked law enforcement and volunteers who helped look for Jenny when she turned up missing. "I know they were heartbroken at the outcome," Elia said. A dive team returned to the pond Tuesday but found no evidence of foul play, said sheriff's spokesman Larry McKinnon. The medical examiner's office is determining the cause of death. The special-needs class was supervised by a teacher and six aides, Hillsborough County school district officials have said; three more physical education teachers were in the gymnasium at the time. Jenny was last spotted about 12:35 p.m. Monday when a student reported seeing her walk out the door. It was 1:01 p.m. when someone called 911. Her body was found about 51/2 hours later after the school and nearby areas had been searched by deputies and volunteers. The principal's conference room at Rodgers was turned into a counseling center for faculty and staff members on Tuesday. The media center had become a makeshift place for students to go to talk about Jenny's death. "We love you Jenny and you will always be in our hearts," wrote one student. "RIP. We will love/miss you," penned another student. Along with the notes were a white teddy bear, flowers and a stuffed puppy holding a red heart with the word "love" on it. Kurdell said a physical education class presents an opportunity to move special-needs students into the mainstream school population. "It's real important for regular kids and special-education kids to work with each other," said Kurdell, who worked as an aide in a special-education class in California years ago. "A physical education class is a perfect opportunity to do that kind of thing." Kurdell said exceptional education students develop patterns that teachers come to recognize and predict. "We try to be careful, but it can happen in the blink of an eye," she said. "You get used to the pattern and work with what that pattern is. If you turn your back for two seconds, they certainly can step away." Adding to the danger are ponds nearby, which is common at schools in Florida where land must be drained and filled for construction. The pond where the girl's body was found is on school property. "We fence them in, we lock the gates, but you still have tragedy," Kurdell said. Melissa Tremblay, mother of a 19-year-old with Down syndrome, said children with the condition typically don't favor exercise. "A child with Down syndrome lacks motivation and muscle control," Tremblay said. "Exercise is not their favorite." Shirley Lawyer, the president of the Down Syndrome Network of Tampa Bay, said all special-needs children obviously require more supervision. "The cognitive abilities of a kid with Down syndrome are such a wide range," she said. The school district is required to have both a teacher and a paraprofessional, or aide, in all special-needs classes, said Stephen Hegarty, spokesman for the school district. Then, depending on the makeup of the class and the severity of the disabilities involved, even more aides could be required. The school district cannot afford one-on-one ratios for aides and special-needs students, who require extra vigilance, Kurdell said. Lawyer said she has no problem with the school district's teacher-to-student supervision ratio. She said the aides might need more training with special-needs children because most volunteers are parents or retirees. Before Jenny left the gym, she had hidden under some bleachers, deputies said. That incident should have prompted aides to give Jenny more attention, Lawyer said. The district's Office of Professional Standards is waiting for the sheriff's office to wrap up its part of the investigation before opening its own. "They are monitoring what is going on," said Linda Cobbe, spokeswoman for the school district. "They have the names of everyone involved." On Tuesday, relatives and friends gathered at the home of Jenny's parents, in a rural area of Riverview. Several people milled outside of the mobile home, talking quietly. Laundry was hung up to dry in the back. A rooster crowed from a nearby yard. People at the home declined to comment. Tremblay, a member of Lawyer's organization, said she reached out to a relative of Jenny's and offered support for the family. Jenny's parents are in a state of shock and the entire incident feels surreal to them, she said. A neighbor said the Caballeros are a family of modest means who have lived in the mobile home for 20 years. The father is a farmworker and the mother stayed at home to care for Jenny and her two sisters. The parents can't afford to pay for a funeral, neighbor Heather Boffo said. "This is devastating," she said. "The family sent their child to school and she ended up dead." Ismael Garcia, the former pastor for the Caballero family at a church in Riverview, has known Jenny for three years. "She was an extraordinary girl," Garcia said outside his Ruskin home. "She was a beautiful girl. She was a loving girl." The girl's father, Tarcisio, worked at a plant nursery. Her mother, Elizabeth, dedicated herself to Jenny, who was "the light of her life," Garcia said. "They aren't angry," Garcia said. "They are loving people. They are obviously upset over the situation."

rshaw@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7999

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