On Jan. 25, Rosario Gomez, a 14-year-old boy with autism, drowned during a physical education class at Kennedy High School on the Southwest Side, somehow ending up unnoticed in the deep end of a pool filled with 70 other students.
Rosario didn’t know how to swim, had significant problems communicating and wasn’t wearing a life jacket, a Chicago Sun-Times and Better Government Association investigation has found.
Yet, even though six school employees — two P.E. teachers, a special education classroom assistant, a substitute special ed. classroom assistant, an instructional assistant and a lifeguard — were on duty, no one noticed that Rosario was no longer in the shallow end of the pool, which is around three feet deep, the Sun-Times and BGA found.
Around 1:10 that afternoon, minutes after Rosario entered the pool, he was spotted “at the bottom” of the pool in about eight feet of water, records obtained from the Chicago Police Department show.
His mother, Yolanda Juarez, is suing the Chicago Public Schools for wrongful death, saying Rosario wasn’t properly supervised. She, her lawyer and other family members won’t talk about what happened.
Earlier, seeking help with the cost of the funeral, Rosario’s aunt Delta Cervantes wrote online on a GoFundMe page, “We are all devastated and cannot understand how the place your child should feel safe . . . suddenly becomes the reason why he does not come home.”
School officials won’t discuss details of what happened, though they acknowledge serious lapses.
CPS spokesman Michael Passman says it’s “heartbreaking that his life was lost in a school . . . . An appropriate staffing plan was in place at Kennedy. Tragically, despite appropriate planning and an observance of safety regulations, Rosario did not receive the support he needed that day.”
Two school employees were fired — Julia Williams, a substitute aide at the pool who was accused of being “negligent in the supervision of a student,” and lifeguard Calvin Carter, according to CPS records.
CPS has suspended and is seeking to fire a third person. And two other employees received disciplinary warnings, records show.
The school principal, George Szkapiak, was found to have failed to file a report to CPS officials on the circumstances surrounding Rosario’s death, though they were notified and came to Kennedy. Passman says that’s “not the district’s protocol,” but, since CPS officials and emergency responders were immediately notified, “it was determined that a disciplinary action was not appropriate.”
One staffer, a special education classroom assistant, wasn’t disciplined.
CPS officials say there were 65 students in the pool, and that, with six staffers, “the pool area at Kennedy was properly staffed based on the number of students in the pool and their specific needs.”
In court filings, CPS lawyers have said there were 70 students — the same number the lifeguard says were in the pool.
The fired staffers say they were wrongly blamed and that proper safety procedures either weren’t in place or weren’t communicated to them.
Carter, the lifeguard, says that, though the pool wasn’t at its 125-person capacity, he didn’t think there were enough adults to oversee the students during what he says was a rare period in which two classes were combined into one.
“Does this seem right to you, to have that many kids in a pool, from three to 12 feet [deep], with one lifeguard?” Carter says. “And two classes, with special ed., with one lifeguard? Come on. Would you have your child in that situation if you knew it? That’s a disaster waiting to happen. And, in this case, it did.”
The day he died, Rosario, a freshman, was in the middle of a six-week PE program on swimming. The two classes sharing the pool included about 15 special ed. students.
He was fairly new to being in the water after having spent the first part of the swim program sitting on the sidelines, according to Carter and Williams.
During the 1 p.m. class, “Music was blaring, as it did every day,” a police report quotes a witness as saying.
Rosario, who had “verbal communication delays,” didn’t usually go in the pool, witnesses told the police, who deleted their names in the reports they released in response to a public records request.
He was playing water basketball toward the shallow end, according to the reports, which say he was spotted underwater in the deep end within 10 minutes of the start of class.
Someone alerted a school employee, who initially said the person at the bottom was “probably training,” according to witness accounts to police. Another witness told police one employee — it’s not clear which one — had been at a desk entering attendance into a computer.
Records show Carter jumped in, brought the 5-feet-8, 123-pound teenager to the surface and gave him CPR.
He later told the police it was hard to see the boy “because there were a lot of kids in the pool.”
Rosario was taken to MacNeal Hospital in Berwyn. That’s where he was pronounced dead.
Carter says he was standing at the edge of the pool when another staff member called out there was someone at the bottom of the pool.
According to Carter, it was a “non-instructional day,” what was known at the school at 6325 W. 56th St. as a “fun day.” Students were spread throughout the pool playing water polo, volleyball and basketball, while more advanced swimmers were practicing dives, according to Carter and police reports. He says those not swimming were supposed to be sitting out or walking around the perimeter of the pool.
He says that, with all of the activity in the water, it was hard to spot Rosario at first and that the pool should have had an elevated lifeguard chair to provide a higher vantage to scan the water.
Carter also questions why the aides don’t accompany the special ed. students into the water: “Attention means one-on-one when they’re in the water.”
According to CPS, Williams, the substitute special ed. classroom assistant who also was fired, “was responsible for overseeing Gomez and four other students.”
Williams, who is licensed by the Illinois State Board of Education as a paraprofessional, says Kennedy staffers didn’t provide her with any information about her students’ disabilities or needs.
She says she previously worked at a private school that provided a detailed plan outlining what to look for and what to do for each child. At CPS, she says, “they just throw you right in. You are just working with kids, and you don’t even know what they have.”
Williams says she’d been substituting at Kennedy since the fall. According to CPS records, she was filling in for a paraprofessional who had been out for more than a year.
Williams says she had never worked with Rosario and that no one told her he was her responsibility. She says she primarily had been a one-on-one aide for another boy.
That changed a few weeks before the drowning, when the swimming program began, according to Williams. Instead of staying with the other boy, she says she also helped three girls with special needs in one of the classes since she could assist them in the girls’ locker room, while a male aide took the other boy to the weight room.
She says the “supervision was never set in stone. ‘This is what we did one day, so let’s do it again.’ ”
Under federal law, supervision of special education students is required to be spelled out in an “individualized education program.” Those IEPs are confidential.
Under Chicago school policy, “every person who teaches (or assists in teaching) … or supervises students participating in any aquatic activity” has to have a water-safety instructor certificate. Records show three of the six adults supervising the pool have such certification.
Passman says the aides “are not required to go through water-safety certification, and it is not their job to conduct water rescues in the event of an emergency.”
CPS made some changes last year in how the school district funded services for special education students. That prompted complaints from parents and advocates the school system had added layers of bureaucracy that delayed services for students — and some of the changes have been eliminated this school year.
“It’s worrying about the bottom line, that’s what happened,” says Mary Fahey Hughes, director of the advocacy group 19th Ward Parents for Special Education. “These policies are … not about the safety or appropriateness of services because the kids are not getting the help that they need.”
At Kennedy about four months before the drowning, Cyrous Hashemian, a former special education case manager and teacher, had outlined concerns about special ed. services at the school, including the use of long-term subs, in emails to CPS’ top special ed. administrator and other officials.
Hashemian complained multiple times that a paraprofessional was regularly being used as an office clerk instead of working with students and that long-term subs were being used in lieu of teachers.
He also told officials that meetings to talk about the needs of students with disabilities and to create a plan for helping them were being held without all staffers on IEP teams and that the plans were determined before the meetings took place.
“The alarm bells were there,” Hashemian says now.
He was fired in the summer of 2016. Hashemian says that was in retaliation for speaking out. He’s fighting his dismissal.
Passman didn’t respond to questions about Hashemian.
Kimberly Rosario, who has a daughter at Kennedy who has epilepsy and suffers from seizures, says she has complained about staffing levels for aides and nurses.
She says that, on the day Rosario Gomez died, her daughter had a seizure, so she rushed to the school.
She says she left her daughter briefly with a school nurse and returned to find the girl sitting in a wheelchair unsupervised. The nurse had left for the pool, Kimberly Rosario says.
“When I walked in, my face was probably white as a ghost,” she says. “At any time, she can go back into seizure mode, and they know that.
“There’s not enough help,” she says. “If the one drowning happened with that one boy, what makes you think something else tragic isn’t going to happen?”
Rosario is remembered by teachers and others who knew him as a happy kid who was close with his family, especially his grandmother, whom he helped after she had a stroke.
He didn’t talk much in school. But teachers and others who worked with him over the years remember him always smiling.
“He was just one of those really quiet and gentle kids,” says Deborah Ryder, who was Rosario’s art teacher. “He always looked forward to class.”
He loved riding his bike around his Southwest Side neighborhood. And he loved trains. He even knew all the different Metra lines by heart.
Cervantes, his aunt, wrote that, for his memorial service, Metra donated two conductor hats and a ticket punch.
“He was ready for his long trip to the angels,” she wrote.
Katie Drews is an investigator for the Better Government Association. Lauren FitzPatrick is the Sun-Times’ education reporter.