Boy, 15, dies in Mervo pool after request to be excused

October 27, 1990|By Will Englundand Roger Twigg

A 15-year-old boy with asthma died at a Baltimore public school swimming pool yesterday, where he was taking part in a swim class even though his mother had written to the school asking that he be excused.

Derrick White, a ninth-grader at Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School, had pleaded with his mother, Bobbie White, to let him stay home yesterday, but -- unaware that he faced a swim test -- she told him he must go to school in order to get good grades.

Mrs. White said last night that Derrick wouldn't tell her why he wanted to stay home, but she said she now suspected he was afraid of going into the pool.

"He said, 'Ma' -- Lord have mercy -- 'could you please get me out?' I said, 'No. Your grades are important,' " Mrs. White said.

Christolyne Buie, Mergenthaler's principal, was not aware of Mrs. White's letter asking that her son not take part in swim classes be

cause of his asthma, Douglas Neilson, a school system spokesman, said last night.

Derrick's swimming teacher, Nancy Havranek, could not be reached for comment last night.

Derrick apparently drowned as he

See POOL, 5A, Col. 1 POOL, from 1A

slipped and hit his head while climbing out of the pool, according to police and school officials. The accident happened at 11:10 a.m., at the end of a swimming class for two groups of students -- 60 to 70 in all.

Two instructors were at the pool, overseeing tests at both the deep and shallow ends. They had just blown their whistles and signaled all the students to gather at the shallow end, police said, when Derrick decided to climb over the lip of the pool at a rope marking off the deep end.

Dennis S. Hill, a police spokesman, said Derrick apparently hit either his chin or his forehead on the edge of the pool and slipped back under water.

As Mr. Neilson described it, Derrick then drifted into deeper water. A girl in the class started yelling for the two swimming instructors.

The instructors didn't hear her until she had run nearly the length of the pool, police said.

By then, a student had jumped in to try to save Derrick, who was now in about 11 feet of water, but could not bring him to the surface. He then tried to hook Derrick with a 7-foot rescue pole. Ms. Havranek, who had stripped down to her bathing suit, jumped into the water and pulled Derrick out with the help of two students, Mr. Hill said.

While she applied cardiopulmonary resuscitation, Woodrow Williams, Mervo's athletic director, called for an ambulance. Police said the ambulance arrived about a half-hour after the accident. They said that it was not clear how long Derrick had been in the water before he was pulled out or before the ambulance was called.

Derrick was taken to Union Memorial Hospital and pronounced dead at 12:30 p.m. Mr. Neilson said an autopsy would be performed.

Ms. Havranek, 40, is a certified lifeguard and swimming instructor, Mr. Neilson said.

Derrick's mother said last night that "he was no swimmer." After he was sick two weeks ago with asthma, she said, she requested that he be kept out of the water. She was afraid that he would catch pneumonia -- not that he would drown.

"It was just negligence," she said. "It wasn't done on purpose. But they didn't do their job. I put him in their care."

Mrs. White, a cafeteria aide at Gardenville Elementary, said a relative called her and told her to go to Union Memorial. Superintendent Richard C. Hunter met her there and patted her on the back, she said, but as of early last night, no one from the school had talked to her.

"I never got an explanation," she said. "Not even a phone call. Why couldn't somebody tell me?"

When the news of Derrick's death came over the school intercom, the school observed a moment of silence, and some students burst into tears. A Crisis Intervention Team offered counseling to students. Athletic events were canceled.

Shantelle Turner, who had known Derrick since the fifth grade, said he was a popular student who didn't make enemies.

Shantelle and Mrs. White said Derrick had to work hard "to make his grades."

"He's been trying to get his grades straight to please me," Mrs. White said.

Two years ago, when Derrick was at Northeast Middle School, she said, he became so sick with asthma that he used a home teaching program for a while at the family apartment on Crenshaw Avenue in Northeast Baltimore. But his health improved somewhat, and he had been able to go to Mervo, where he planned to study auto mechanics.

Mrs. White said last night that if it wasn't for Derrick's sister, Robin Taylor, 8, she wouldn't be sure she could keep on living.

"I got to go and grieve the rest of my life," she said. "I'm hurting so bad I don't know what to do."

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