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‘They failed my son,’ Chicago schools to pay $4M in special ed. teen’s drowning

“I trusted these people,” says Yolanda Juarez, whose 14-year-old autistic son Rosario Isarel Gomez drowned at a Chicago Public Schools pool in 2017. “They failed my son.”

“I trusted these people,” says Yolanda Juarez, whose 14-year-old autistic son Rosario Israel Gomez drowned at a Chicago Public Schools pool in 2017. “They failed my son.” | Family photo

Someone was at the bottom of the pool at Kennedy High School, not moving. At least three students told that to the Chicago Public Schools lifeguard on duty.

But the lifeguard ignored them, according to records obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times and the Better Government Association that CPS officials released but then went to court in a failed effort to keep them secret.

It’s probably just a kid practicing holding his breath, the lifeguard told them.

Yet another student alerted one of the two gym teachers overseeing the crowded swim session at the Southwest Side school pool. But he was on his computer and ignored her.

Finally, after about five minutes, another adult on duty at the pool spotted what the girls had seen. But it was too late. Rosario Israel Gomez — a 14-year-old freshman with autism, a boy who couldn’t swim and wasn’t supposed to have been left alone — already was unconscious.

He was given CPR for 20 minutes, first by three CPS employees including the school principal, then by paramedics. But the boy his family called Israel couldn’t be revived. About an hour later, at 2:18 p.m. on Jan. 25, 2017, he was pronounced dead at MacNeal Hospital in Berwyn.

Now, two years after Israel’s mother sent him to school never to see him alive again, the Chicago Board of Education has agreed to pay $4 million to settle the wrongful death lawsuit she filed against CPS.

Speaking publicly for the first time about her son’s death, Yolanda Juarez was mortified to read through new details about what happened to him — and angry that CPS tried to hide its failures.

“I trusted these people,” Juarez says. “I trusted, and they failed me. They failed my son.

“There was no responsibility there. They did a horrible job. And they don’t want this to get out there.”

Once the settlement is approved by a Cook County judge, it will be the biggest payout CPS has made since 2011, the year Mayor Rahm Emanuel took office. It’s more than Chicago school board members have given victims of sex abuse by school employees and $1 million more than the settlement with the family of a student who died in 2010 after being inadvertently given food she was allergic to at a school party.

The Sun-Times and the BGA reported in September 2017 that six school employees — two P.E. teachers, a special education classroom assistant, a substitute special ed. classroom assistant, an instructional assistant and the lifeguard — were on duty. But somehow none noticed that Israel no longer was in the shallow end of the pool.

That was among a series of problems at the Kennedy pool as the teenager was one of 70 students enjoying an unstructured “fun day” session complete with “blaring” music, records show.

It was minutes after seventh period began, around 1:10 p.m., when Israel, who wasn’t wearing a life jacket and had trouble communicating, slipped unnoticed into the deep end.

The newly obtained records — 313 pages CPS went to court to “claw back,” saying they “inadvertently” released them and getting a Cook County judge to initially order reporters not to publish stories based on them — reveal that other errors also played a part in the death of the special education student.

Key among them was that the lifeguard, Calvin Carter, ignored warnings from three girls at the pool, according to the records.

The records — which CPS fought for nearly two years to keep secret — show another student told investigators for the school system one of those girls “looked visibly shaken” after failing to get the attention of Carter about the boy at the bottom of the deep end. Busy with swimming instruction, the lifeguard “blew her off” twice, saying he was “probably diving and practicing holding his breath.”

Among other findings from CPS’ investigation of how Israel died:

• Carter — an hourly employee with no benefits who worked at the school seven hours a day, from 7:45 a.m. until 2:45 p.m. — told investigators that the scene at the crowded, noisy Kennedy pool was “mayhem.”

• Kurt Kerrigan — one of the two physical education teachers there — was sitting at a table, working on his laptop computer. He said it would have been hard to see students in the deep end but that he “saw visually all the students with special needs in the shallow end and the next minute I look up and R.G. is underneath.” Kerrigan told CPS investigators he was recording students’ attendance when Israel disappeared, and he emailed his principal that afternoon, saying, “I wasn’t at my desk for more than 2 minutes max.” School officials, though, found that Kerrigan didn’t make his first entry into CPS’ online Gradebook attendance system until 1:48 p.m. — more than half an hour after the boy was discovered. Records from disciplinary proceedings that resulted in Kerrigan’s firing show that, later that afternoon, he deleted his computer’s browser history.

• A student who saw Carter dive in said she told Kerrigan, “I think there’s something wrong there” but that Kerrigan “didn’t move.”

• The other P.E. teacher said that once another adult finally spotted Israel, she started running toward that end of the pool to try to help him and yelled Kerrigan’s name. She said Kerrigan “looked up for a moment and then turned his attention back to his laptop.”

• One of the two special education classroom assistants who were present — a regular substitute named Julia Williams — was supposed to be in charge of looking after Israel and several other students with special needs at the pool. Williams was sitting near the shallow end of the pool “to watch and keep track of time,” according to the CPS records.

• Williams told CPS investigators she wasn’t used to seeing the boy she called Rosario in the pool because he never even brought a swimsuit to school. “I didn’t even know Rosario was in the water,” she told investigators. “I didn’t pay attention.”

• It wasn’t until an aide for the other gym class noticed Israel in the water and got Carter’s attention that the lifeguard jumped in to pull the boy from the pool.

• Israel wasn’t given a life jacket to wear around the pool, even though he had failed a swim test — though life jackets were given to at least one other kid that day. CPS didn’t require teachers to make sure non-swimmers had life jackets.

• Investigators were told Israel “knew how to stay in the shallow end” of the pool, which deepened gradually from a low of three feet to five feet deep, then dropped off sharply to 12 feet deep.

• And maybe worst of all, he was supposed to have “adult supervision at all times,” according to the records. But no plans had been made to have someone monitor him at the pool even though Kerrigan, the P.E. teacher, was listed as part of the school team that drew up the special education student’s support plan at Kennedy, 6325 W. 56th St., in October 2016.

The pool at Kennedy High School where Rosario Israel Gomez drowned. | Chicago Police Department

Israel’s mother says school officials wouldn’t allow her to attend that 2016 meeting in person, instead calling her on the phone. She says no one told her a thing about her son going to the pool at school.

“They just told me about the gym but never about the pool,” says Juarez, who read through the CPS files that Sun-Times and BGA reporters showed her. “He needed somebody there to be by his side in the pool.”

Though CPS officials say they went to court because they shouldn’t have released their full investigative file and that the privacy restrictions are meant to protect children and their families, Juarez and her lawyer say they want the world to know what happened.

She’s appalled at the findings CPS documented, especially about the lifeguard ignoring warnings.

“He didn’t believe her, huh?” Juarez says of the girl’s initial warning. “She alerted a second time? Oh, my God. He blew her off again? That is depressing.”

School staffers were supposed to keep her son safe, she says.

“They didn’t pay attention. They ignored my son,” Juarez says. “They are not supposed to let the kids just go loose, you know what I mean, in the swimming pool?”

Rosario Israel Gomez on his graduation day from Adlai Stevenson Elementary School. | Family photo

The teenager’s death came as CPS and then-Chicago schools chief Forrest Claypool — facing a serious financial crunch worsened by a years-long budget standoff in Springfield under former Gov. Bruce Rauner — were under fire from parents and advocacy groups over cuts in services provided to special education students.

As a result, the Illinois State Board of Education assigned a monitor last year to oversee the city’s special education programs after finding that the nation’s third-largest school system had illegally “delayed and denied” services in violation of state and federal laws. The monitor is supposed to get CPS in compliance with the laws and recommend fixes.

Similar problems regarding special ed. services have lingered under Claypool’s successor, Janice Jackson.

In October, the Sun-Times reported that, under a privatization move begun under Claypool, some CPS students with special needs that included medical issues weren’t being provided the nursing care they need during the school day. Soon after, one student highlighted in that report was given a CPS-paid nurse able to provide the care he needs to attend kindergarten.

In November, disabilities rights advocates complained that, even with the state monitor, CPS was doing too little to ensure that special education students are given the services they’re entitled to.

After Israel’s death, top CPS officials insisted an “appropriate staffing plan was in place” at Kennedy that day.

Within months, though, they told principals citywide they were instituting a series of moves to upgrade safety policies for schools with swimming pools. Those included doing away with unsupervised “fun days,” banning electronic devices from school pools and making teachers take attendance outside the pool area.

Then, last year, the Board of Ed. formalized requirements that aides for special ed. students must remain within reaching distance of their students and that they have to have gotten a water safety certificate. Also, school lifeguards’ duties were restricted so they no longer are allowed to teach swimming. Their sole responsibility now is to watch the kids at their pool. And the ratio of one lifeguard per 100 kids was increased to one for every 50 kids.

CPS also spelled out that extra care needs to be taken with special ed. kids, requiring gym teachers and aides to ensure the students have the support they need in the pool, whether that means wearing a life jacket or always having someone by their side.

This past week, CPS officials wouldn’t answer questions about the settlement, about their findings regarding Israel’s death or about whether they still believe the staffing at Kennedy was “appropriate.”

They pointed to the changes that subsequently were made “to prevent another tragedy in the future” and said: “The incident that occurred was a horrible tragedy, and the district remains heartbroken for the student’s family.”

Rosario Gomez. | GoFundMe

In addition to firing Kerrigan, who was Israel’s assigned P.E. teacher, CPS fired Carter, the lifeguard, and Williams, the substitute special ed. aide.

Two other adults in the pool got written disciplinary warnings. One aide wasn’t disciplined.

Through his lawyer, Carter declined to comment. Kerrigan would say only the information in the CPS files was “not accurate.” The other current and former staffers didn’t return calls.

Carter and Williams previously told the BGA/Sun-Times they were wrongly blamed.

“Does this seem right to you? To have that many kids in a pool, from three to 12 feet, with one lifeguard? And two classes, with special ed, with one lifeguard? Come on. Would you have your child in that situation if you knew it?” Carter said in an interview in 2017. “That’s a disaster waiting to happen. And, in this case, it did.”

CPS wouldn’t release any details of its proposed settlement with Israel’s family.

In October 2018, lawyers for the school system said in court papers that if the case went to trial, they would “contest only the amount of damages of this case and . . . not contest liability or causation.”

Kennedy High School. | Chicago Public Schools

Initially, CPS refused to release reports from its internal investigation into Israel’s death, which the BGA requested under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act. The BGA then sued to get them.

A day after the school board approved the proposed $4 million payout, a CPS lawyer handed over 313 pages of evidence.

Four days later, the CPS lawyer who released them said he wanted the documents back. He said he’d erred in handing them over before a judge issued an order to do so.

On Monday, the same lawyer asked Cook County Circuit Judge Peter Flynn to “claw back” the reports, saying, ”I’m concerned about privacy.”

At a hearing Wednesday, Flynn agreed the records should remain private for two more weeks so he could review what should be released — an unusual instance of prior restraint on publication that the BGA fought.

On Thursday, after being presented with written consent from Israel’s family to make the findings public, Flynn agreed to do so.

Katie Drews is a reporter for the Better Government Association. Lauren FitzPatrick is a Sun-Times reporter.

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