Investigation Continues In Tragic Drowning Of Rodgers Middle Special Needs Student

By  Tamas Mondovics

Last month’s disappearance and subsequent massive search for 10-year-old Jennifer Caballero of Riverview, ended with members of the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office (HCSO) special dive unit finding the Rodgers Middle School special needs student deceased at the bottom of a pond behind the school.

The search for answers by her parents, school officials and local law enforcement as to how something like this could have happened, however, is far from over.

HCSO was alerted of the young child’s disappearance on Monday, October 22, prompting a huge search, involving close to a 100 deputies and a number of K9’s, aviation and dive special units. After a five-hour search, divers found Caballero in water approximately 12 feet deep, and about 20 feet from the shore line.

As it was reported, Caballero, who   had Down’s Syndrome and had very limited verbal and communication skills, was in Physical Education class before she walked out of the gymnasium, which according to school spokesperson Linda Cobbe, was reported by the students some time later.

Following the incident,  HCSO Sheriff David Gee met with Superintendent Mary Ellen Elia and members of the Hillsborough County School system to continue the investigation through interviews of school employees.

Sadly, Caballero’s drowning is by no means an isolated incident, especially involving children with special needs and mental disabilities.

In April of this year, 9-year-old  Ariyanna Pivachek, who had autism, went missing after she reportedly had  walked away from a party at 11159 Golden Silence Drive in Riverview. Following a major search Pivachek was later found in the bottom of a pond behind the home where she attended a party.

As reported by Autism Key, drowning has been cited as the leading cause of death for children and adults with autism, with a large majority of these incidents occurring during wandering episodes.

Water Awareness in Residential Neighborhoods (WARN) also confirmed that drowning is one of the leading causes of death in Autistic children nationwide.

Examples of such tragedies includes five-year-old Mason Medlam with autism from Witchita, Kansas who in 2010, died of his injuries after being pulled from a small pond. Medlam wandered from his home out of a partially opened window and had been missing for more than a half-hour before being discovered.

Two years ago, Nathan Kinderdine, a seven-year-old with autism from Ohio, wandered away from his class and was later found by a custodian at the bottom of the school’s indoor swimming pool.

HCPS spokesperson Stephen Hegarty said that school officials are expecting a report from the Sheriff’s Office, and until such time will withhold any judgment about what did or did not happen at Rodgers Middle School that day.

“When we receive the report, we will take that information and conduct our own investigation to determine what steps we will take,” Hegarty said.

Contact the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office at 247-8200.