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Missing Mentally Retarded Boy Found Safe in Mira Mesa

Times Staff Writer

Rigoberto Perez, a mentally retarded boy who was missing for nearly two days after mistakenly boarding a city bus outside Mission Bay High School, was reunited with his family Thursday after he was found wandering in the Mira Mesa area, authorities said.

A commuter en route to work about 7 a.m. recognized the 17-year-old, who was walking near Kearny Villa and Miramar roads, and called San Diego police. Rigoberto’s picture had been widely publicized by the news media, and police said they received more than 500 telephone calls concerning the boy.

“We found Rigoberto in generally good health, although he was very tired and hungry,” said Detective Pete Solomonsen.

Along with three retarded girls, Rigoberto boarded a school bus outside the high school Tuesday afternoon. The four were part of a group of seven students told to meet a teacher for a bus ride to Clairemont High School, where they were to begin a vocational program.

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But the students mistakenly boarded a city bus instead of a school bus. They got out at University Towne Centre, the end of the line.

The girls were able to ask the bus driver how to get to Clairemont High but Perez, who is moderately retarded and has only a limited command of English, became confused, according to his 19-year-old brother, Jose.

“He didn’t know if he should get on the bus with the girls or wait,” Jose Perez said Thursday. “He said he waited for someone--teachers, family--to pick him up until night, and then he started walking.” Police said Rigoberto apparently had walked the 10 miles from the La Jolla shopping mall, where he was last seen at 7 p.m. Tuesday, to the Mira Mesa area.

“He said he didn’t sleep or eat, he just walked,” Jose said, adding that his brother had slept most of the day since returning home.

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The incident has led parents and school administrators to question the supervision of the 30 retarded students at Mission Bay High. The students are allowed to spend their lunch period without direct supervision, under the school district’s open campus policy. About 10 staff members regularly supervise the lunch area during lunchtime, school officials said.

“My parents are hoping the school takes a little bit more care in keeping an eye on the students,” Jose said.

He said his parents have decided not to send Rigoberto to vocational classes at Clairemont High, and instead will allow him to attend classes only at Mission Bay High.

School administrators, however, were wary about establishing policies that would limit the freedom of movement of retarded students.

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Jim Kaupp, assistant superintendent for educational services in the San Diego Unified School District, said he realizes that such students will wander off from time to time. But he said total confinement of mentally retarded students is not the answer.

“We have to look at this one instance, see what happened, and see if something needs to be changed,” Kaupp said. “It is part of the student’s curriculum development to learn how to get on the right bus.”

Allan Peck, vice principal of Mission Bay High, said “mainstreaming” programs for the retarded are critical elements of their education. The programs exist so “special education students are nurtured in such a way they will learn how to function in society,” Peck said.


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