Parents Lose a Child, Look for Answers

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The death of an 11-year-old Yorba Linda boy on a school field trip to a rugged mountainous area stirred an outpouring of sympathy for his family Friday and raised questions about the safety of such excursions, even when precautions are taken.

Kevin Kelley, a sixth-grader at Woodsboro Elementary School in Anaheim, slipped on a rock while crossing a creek during a supervised nature hike Thursday and was swept over a rocky waterfall. The hike was part of a weeklong excursion into the San Bernardino Mountains, a popular destination for school trips.

Kevin's father, Matthew Kelley, said Friday that the family is grappling with the reality of Kevin's death and does not have all the details of how it happened.

"Kevin was an experienced hiker for his age," he said. "He was looking forward to being in the mountains with his friends, playing in the forest, hiking and doing crafts."

Sixth-grade science camp is a rite of passage for youngsters, an adventure away from parents to celebrate the final year of elementary school while roughing it and studying science. Fearing for their children's safety during the annual trips is a rite of passage for parents.

Although Kelley and his wife, Gigi, had weathered the science camp experience last year of their oldest child, Allison, they were "kind of concerned" about Kevin's trip because he was a special education student. Kevin had no physical handicap but had a learning disability and problems with fine motor skills, Kelley said. He had been in a special education class at Woodsboro.

Officials of Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District said they are investigating how the tragedy occurred and reviewing the district's contracts with Arrowhead Ranch Camp, which runs the science school, spokeswoman Karen Bass said. The district also is considering whether to proceed with other schools' scheduled trips.

School district trustee Craig Olson offered condolences to the family.

"As a school board member and as a parent, I want to focus on showing love and support to all involved right now," Olson said. "Then, at the appropriate time, without question, we will want to take a look at what happened" and review the district's outdoor education program, he said.

School districts across Orange County have outdoor science programs for sixth-grade students, many of them with the Arrowhead Ranch Camp.

Ronald Wenkart, general counsel for the Orange County Department of Education, which oversees special education, said he could not comment specifically on Thursday's tragedy.

"It is an unfortunate thing that happened," he said, adding that it is not mandatory for schools to participate in outdoor programs, though most of them do.

The tragedy occurred about 1 p.m. Thursday in the Crab Flats area, near Green Valley Lake, according to the San Bernardino County Fire Department.

One of the students who saw Kevin fall into the water said a counselor, whom she identified only as Rico, was holding Kevin's hand as they crossed the creek. When Kevin slipped, the counselor lost his grip on the boy but immediately jumped into the water to try to save him, said Jamie Kirkby, 11.

"Rico jumped in right after him, automatically," she said.

Classmate Christine Curfman, 11, also witnessed the accident.

"Kevin was standing on a rock when some water came up to him. He slipped and fell," she said after school Friday. "I saw him fall, and I freaked. We were all scared and crying. Some people said he was OK and others said he was dead."

About 80 students and camp counselors were hiking in the area when fire officials received a report that several people had been injured.

Fire department spokesman Chris Jensen said there was rolling fog in the area when the rescuers arrived on the scene. Because of the rugged terrain, rescuers had to lower themselves into a ravine on ropes to remove Kevin's body. He was declared dead at the scene.

Christina Smith, 12, said she was in the next group of Woodsboro hikers after Kevin's. She said the counselors had delayed the students' trek more than an hour because of a "death fog"--the camp's term for heavy fog that makes it easy for children to become lost.

"The snow was icy and hard," Christina said. "It was very easy to slip."

A spokesman for the fire department said Kevin was swept away by the current and fell 300 feet down the waterfall.

An autopsy performed Friday determined that the primary cause of death was drowning, with hypothermia and blunt head injury as other "significant conditions," a spokeswoman for the San Bernardino County coroner's office said.

Woodsboro's sixth-graders left the camp Thursday, a day early, because of the tragedy. On the bus ride home, Christina Smith and her friends prayed for their classmate.

"We thought he could be paralyzed, but we didn't think he had died," she said. "It wasn't until we got back that I saw all the parents crying. I asked my mom if Kevin had died."

Classmate Jamie Kirkby had been walking with Kevin right before they reached the creek, and Kevin told her that it was time for his medicine because he gets "hyper" without it, Jamie's mother, Josie Montes, said Friday. Jamie told Kevin that "everything was going to be OK," Montes said.

Those comforting words may have been the last Kevin heard.

It was not clear Friday how many adults were supervising the campers when the fatality occurred.

U.S. Forest Service workers reportedly were at the accident site, but officials with the agency could not be reached for comment.

An attorney for Arrowhead Ranch Outdoor Science School said the ranch staff, too, is investigating.

Attorney Russell Hiles said he could not comment on how many camp staff members were supervising the children because he was still gathering information about the accident.

The camp, which accepts students from across Southern and Central California, has school groups scheduled next week and throughout the year, and none have canceled in the wake of the accident, ranch officials said.

The mood was somber on the Woodsboro campus Friday. Officials said counselors were brought in to assist students and their families.

Many brought flowers, and some students wrote condolences on a sign inside the principal's office that read, "In loving memory of Kevin Kelley: Sorry for Kevin's untimely death."

"Kevin was a vivacious young man and was very well liked by his peers and teachers," said principal Bonnie Bell.

Matthew Kelley described his son as a sports enthusiast who played Little League baseball, loved basketball and "read the sports page every day.

"He worshiped [Dodger catcher] Mike Piazza," Kelley said.

His son was doing well in school, Kelley said, and last year was elected student body treasurer. Kevin was quite proud of his election "and we were very proud, too."

Just Wednesday, he and his wife had met with the school psychologist and others to discuss Kevin's placement next year at junior high school.

"They were excited," Kelley said. "They said Kevin didn't need special education anymore." Kevin had known about the impending meeting before he left for camp, and they had been looking forward to delivering the good news upon his return, Kelley said.

Compounding their grief, the Kelleys were put through a special kind of parents' hell Thursday before being notified of their son's death.

Gigi Kelley teaches at a school in Fullerton that also sent sixth-graders to the same camp this week. She and other teachers received e-mail Thursday afternoon that there had been an accident at the camp but that none of the Fullerton students had been involved.

Kelley immediately was worried that Kevin was hurt, and she and her husband made telephone calls to school, camp and sheriff's officials for hours but couldn't get any definite information.

Late in the day, an official with the sheriff's department told them that if they had not been contacted by authorities yet, that was a "good sign."

Then, at 6:30 p.m., the Kelleys received a call from the coroner's office notifying them of Kevin's death.

"It was very hard, being on the phone for two hours, and not knowing, then having our hopes lifted, and then dashed," Matthew Kelley said.

He said he wonders why the camp counselors were leading the children across a fast-moving stream so close to a cliff.

"It seems like somebody wasn't exercising good judgment," he said, but added that he does not know all of the facts about what happened "and I'm not judging."

Kelley said Kevin's twin sister, Heather, was scheduled to attend the science camp next month, but "now she is not going."

Some parents of Woodsboro students said they are unhappy that other parents are finger-pointing.

"I'm upset at the comments parents have made blaming the school district for lack of supervision. There were three adults for every six children," said Ken Curfman, Christine's father. "This is an excellent district, and this accident was no different than an accident on a freeway."

Added parent Karen Smith: "This was just an accident, and instead of putting the blame on anyone, prayers should be offered for Kevin's family."

A parent from a different school, whose son also was at the camp, said she was saddened.

"It was a terrible accident, and we have to be thankful. We got a phone call saying our son was OK. Somebody else didn't."

Times correspondent Susan Deemer contributed to this report.

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