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Drowned Riverview girl's mom blames school

The Tampa Tribune
Published:   |   Updated: March 13, 2013 at 11:24 PM
TAMPA -

The mother of an 11-year-old girl with Down syndrome who drowned last week after walking out of a crowded school gym said teachers and aides are to blame for her daughter's death.

"I think it was negligence from them for not offering (extra) care for children with special needs," said Elizabeth Rosas, the mother of Jennifer "Jenny" Caballero. "If they had had more care for my daughter, this would have never happened."

She wants investigators to find out exactly what happened at Rodgers Middle School in Riverview on the afternoon of Oct. 22.

"I want everything to be cleared up," Rosas said. "I want justice. I don't want the same thing that happened to my daughter to happen to another child because of poor care."

Jenny was in a gymnasium at Rodgers Middle School in Riverview on Oct. 22 when a student alerted teachers that the girl had slipped out of the gym.

Several hours later, Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office investigators found Jenny's body in a pond near the school. She had drowned.

Jenny, who had started at Rodgers Middle the second week of the school year, liked the school, Rosas said. She said her daughter was not one to run off or hide from adults.

"She never escaped from any place," Rosas said. "Never in her life had she ever done that to me."

Sheriff's detectives continue to investigate how the girl was able to walk away unnoticed by adults from a gymnasium packed with 140 students. About 20 of those were special-needs students in Jenny's class for the trainable mentally handicapped. The class was supervised by a teacher and six aides.

Jenny was last spotted about 12:35 p.m. when a student reported seeing her walk out the door. Twenty-six minutes later, at 1:01 p.m., someone called 911.

Her body was found about 5½ hours later after a search of the school and nearby areas by deputies and volunteers.

Detectives hope to complete their report this week and meet with the Hillsborough County State Attorney's Office.

Sheriff David Gee met with Superintendent of Schools MaryEllen Elia and members of the Hillsborough County school system on Tuesday. Officials would not reveal what was discussed.

Hillsborough County school district officials declined to comment Wednesday on the mother's comments, saying they are waiting until the end of the investigation by the sheriff's office.

Once law enforcement is done with its investigation, district spokesman Steve Hegarty said, the district's office of professional standards will begin its own.

"We're going to look to see what the investigation shows and take whatever action we need to," he said. "We're working closely with the sheriff's office to bring that to a conclusion."

At a school board meeting last week, Elia said she had talked to Jenny's family members the day her body was found.

"I told them we would do everything we can to find out what happened," she told school board members. "And that we would do everything we can to make sure this never happens again."

Rosas said her life was dedicated to helping her daughter, who was born in Tampa. They had a routine on school days: She would brush Jenny's hair and tie her shoes. Then they would walk to the bus stop near their Riverview home, where Jenny would hug and kiss her mother before getting on the school bus.

"She was very affectionate with us," said Rosas, 54. "She was always smiling with us."

Jenny attended Corr Elementary in Gibsonton from kindergarten to fifth grade, Rosas said.

"There they treated her very well," Rosas said. "There the teachers knew how to care for the children."

When Jenny first started attending Rodgers Middle, Rosas said, she spoke to her daughter's teacher to let her know that her daughter would need extra supervision.

"She's a special-needs child," Rosas said. "A special-needs child needs more care, more attention."

Rosas said she, her husband and their two teenage daughters are struggling with the tragedy.

"They took away a part of me," Rosas said. "It's difficult. She was the adoration of the entire house."


jpatino@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7659 Twitter: @jpatinoTrib Reporter Rob Shaw contributed to this report.

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