City teen drowns on W.Va. field trip

Accident occurs in remote area

March 30, 2007|By Sara Neufeld | Sara Neufeld,Sun reporter

A 17-year-old Northwest Baltimore boy died in an accidental drowning Wednesday while on a school field trip in remote West Virginia wilderness, city school system officials announced last night.

Paramedics needed more than two hours to reach Kenneth Jones, a sophomore at the Independence School Local 1 in Hampden. Tfc. Andrew D. Teter, the investigating officer for the West Virginia State Police, said the swimming hole where the boy was trapped was an "extreme, extreme remote location," more than seven miles from a road.

Jones was participating in a weeklong trip with seven classmates and three adults.

School Principal Helen Atkinson was on her way to eastern West Virginia last night to bring the other students home, said Vanessa Pyatt, a school system spokeswoman.

Run by the Baltimore Teacher Network, Independence School stresses experiential learning, with projects and internships in lieu of a standard curriculum. Operating in a trailer across the parking lot from the Robert Poole Middle School building, the school serves about 45 students who haven't been successful in a traditional academic environment.

Teter said West Virginia police have found no evidence of foul play in the drowning; it is being investigated as an accident.

To get to the scene Wednesday night, some responding paramedics were able to ride in utility vehicles for about four miles into the woods, Teter said, but they then had to walk the rest of the way through a swampy trail with creek crossings. Some walked the entire way.

The Pendleton County barracks of the West Virginia State Police got a call at 4:56 p.m. that a teen had fallen into water and not resurfaced. Paramedics were dispatched immediately from six area fire departments, along with a rescue squad, a tactical skills team and local law enforcement, Teter said. But the first responders did not arrive until "well after 7."

A dive team from the Elkins Fire Department was also dispatched, but members did not arrive until about 9 p.m. because of the distance, Teter said.

Members of the dive team found Jones' body at the bottom of the swimming hole, about 10 feet under water, beneath the strong current of a waterfall. The boy was pronounced dead at the scene.

Police would not say how Jones became trapped.

Independence is a program of a larger school across town, Dr. Samuel L. Banks High. But in December, the city school board approved an application for Independence to convert next academic year into a charter school, a public institution that operates independently. The charter application said the school will grow to serve 112.

One of the school's hallmarks is its Wilderness Art Initiative, a tough, five-day camping curriculum designed to empower struggling students. Each class goes on three trips per year in surrounding states.

A statement released by the school system last night said the trip that Jones was on enabled students to participate in daily hikes and learn outdoors skills while working toward high school credits.

Pyatt said two grief counselors were at the school yesterday and will return today. She said it is too soon to determine whether the school will maintain the camping curriculum.

Asked about the safety of having students so far from a road, Pyatt said: "The only thing I can tell you is that's part of the experience. ... As this moves forward, we'll get into further discussion about the scope of the experience and what is permitted and the rationale for that. At this point, we're simply waiting for additional information from West Virginia police."

City schools Interim Chief Executive Officer Charlene Cooper Boston said in a statement the system is "cooperating fully with West Virginia State Police."

The boy's family could not be located for comment last night.

Sun reporters Liz Bowie and John Fritze contributed to this article.

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