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Parents Lose a Child, Look for Answers

Tragedy: Yorba Linda boy's death during school nature hike raises safety questions.

May 09, 1998|MARCIDA DODSON and VANESSA DeRUYTER | 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."

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