Answers sought after drowning

Baltimore teen's death brings questions from family, officials

March 31, 2007|By Annie Linskey | Annie Linskey,Sun reporter

Robin Blake hugged her son for the last time after dinner Sunday night.

The boy, Kenneth Jones, had spent much of the weekend at his parents' Westport home, playing basketball with his brother and preparing for a West Virginia camping trip with his high school classmates.

"He loved the outdoors, but he was a city kid," said his father, also named Kenneth Jones.

"He was on the right track," said his mother, Robin Blake, tears streaming down her face.

Kenneth, 17, and seven other students from Independence School Local 1 in Hampden - an alternative public school for students who have struggled in traditional classrooms - left Baltimore on Tuesday morning. That night, they slept under tents pitched deep in the Monongahela National Forest in Elkins, W.Va.

The next day, as other students stood by, Jones jumped into a frigid pool at the base of a waterfall, said a West Virginia State Police investigator. Amid the rough currents, the 10th-grader went under and drowned.

The death has prompted an internal investigation by the city school system, and at least one member of the City Council said he is considering hearings.

"There are a lot of questions I want answered," said the boy's father.

"I'm not going to discredit the school, but I think they should have been better supervised," he said, standing in front of his house yesterday. "I want to know what happened."

The Baltimore school system's interim chief executive officer, Charlene Cooper Boston, did not publicly comment yesterday about the death.

Vanessa Pyatt, a spokeswoman for the school system, said that an internal review is in progress but declined to elaborate.

She said it was too early to know how the incident would affect the school's status. It is supposed to become a charter school in August.

Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr., who chairs the council's Education, Housing, Health and Human Services Committee, said yesterday that he might hold an investigative hearing on the trip and the circumstances of the death.

"We need to take a look at the policies regarding trips and guardians," Harris said. "All that needs to be looked at."

"It's puzzling," Harris said. "What type of supervision and safety measures were in place? There are so many unanswered questions."

Pyatt referred all questions about the drowning to the West Virginia State Police. Tfc. Andrew D. Teter, the lead investigator, said he is still working on the report but described the death as accidental.

"He entered [the water] on his own accord," Teter said of the teen. The officer said it did not appear that Jones was knocked unconscious in the water. He said that other students were in the immediate area and that teachers were nearby.

"There are strong undercurrents from the waterfall. That is a contributing factor," he said.

He said that the campsite, near a place called Spruce Knob, is about eight miles from any dirt road and 15 miles from a paved highway.

After receiving an emergency call from a teacher with a satellite phone about 5 p.m., rescue workers got to the scene in two hours. Teter said he hiked two to three miles with heavy gear to find the campsite.

"It was dark, cold and raining hard when we got there," he said. The other students and teachers were huddled under a tarp by a campfire. Teter arrived about 7 p.m. Members of the dive team, who recovered the body, arrived about 9 p.m.

The school's principal, Helen Atkinson, drove to West Virginia on Thursday to accompany the children home. Classes were held yesterday, and Pyatt, the school spokeswoman, said that grief counselors encouraged students to talk in groups and one-on-one about their feelings.

Students trickled out of the school in small groups yesterday. Some grasped photographs of Kenneth as the walked out of the low-slung building. Many had red eyes.

Forty-five students attend the school, which is technically an extension of the Samuel L. Banks High School. The camping trip is part of the school's alternative curriculum designed to empower students who struggle in traditional academic settings.

The elder Jones, a former Marine, said he hasn't slept since the news of his son's death. He embraced his son's mother as she cried. "It's rough on her," he said.

Nobody from the school had been in touch with the boy's parents by late morning yesterday.

Other relatives who had gathered at the home questioned teachers' actions on the trip. "I don't understand how you have eight kids and three instructors and you can't keep them close," said Keith Jones, an uncle.

Kenneth enrolled in the school last year after he was expelled from Benjamin Franklin Middle School for being involved in a fight, his father said.

"He didn't want to deal with thugs," Jones said. "I stayed on him about being straight."

When Kenneth started 10th grade at the school in Hampden, he moved in with a cousin in Park Heights, his mother said. Kenneth became so close with the school's faculty that a teacher would pick him up in the morning and drive him to class, she said.

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