By JOSH KOVNER, email@example.com
The Hartford Courant
March 3, 2013
Kevin Schools stood on the grass next to the pond in Hartford's Elizabeth Park on a spring night in 2007.
Police and ambulance lights swept over him. He was in shock. He had gotten a phone call at home in Enfield on that mild May evening that broke his heart.
"Jason went into the water. They can't find him,'' said the caller from the group home.
"What do you mean they can't find him?'' Schools responded, his orderly machinist's mind scanning for logic and finding none.
Jason Schools was Kevin and Deborah's son. Kelsey and Danielle's brother. A fun-loving 24-year-old with a profound developmental disability.
A group home worker had taken him to the park that day in a company van. It was May 26, 2007, the Saturday before Memorial Day. The worker met a female friend at the park, an off-duty group home employee. Soon they were wrapped up in an intimate conversation, witnesses would later say.
Meanwhile, Jason wandered around the park. Investigators with the state Office of Protection and Advocacy for Persons with Disabilities would determine that Jason twice waded into the pond at Elizabeth Park, which featured a fountain in the center. The second time Jason went in, he didn't come out.
After the phone call, Kevin Schools drove to Elizabeth Park.
"I couldn't understand how this happened,'' he recalled.
Jason loved water. When he and his father weren't watching planes take off at Bradley International Airport, with Kevin pretending to be the pilot and Jason joyfully playing co-pilot, they often went to the beach or a lake to skip stones or hang out by the water's edge. At the supermarket, Jason loved to look at the lobster tank.
Everyone at the group home knew Jason was drawn to water. It was one of the first things that Kevin Schools told the staff when he dropped Jason off at the group home for the first time — one of the hardest days of Kevin's life.
Kevin and his wife, Deborah, had promised themselves that they would care for Jason at home until they were too old to do it anymore. They loved him as they did their daughters. The daughters adored Jason.
But Deborah died in February 2007. Kevin, staggered with grief, juggled shifts at Pratt & Whitney to try to be there for Jason. His daughters helped out; his extended family helped out.
Without Deborah, Jason's care was pushing the family to the edge. They came to the conclusion that Jason would be better off at a nearby group home, where he could continue his day program and the family could visit him and even bring him home from time to time.
"I didn't know what to expect,'' Kevin Schools said of his initial visit to the group home in East Hartford, run by Community Residence Inc. "But it wasn't my stereotypical image. It wasn't an institution. It was a ranch house in a development. He'd have his own bedroom. They assembled the team for us. There seemed to be a lot of care going on. When we left, he was laughing. I began to feel better.''
That was April 2007. A few weeks later, Jason drowned in the pond at Elizabeth Park.
Standing on the grass, a few feet from the flower-lined paths bordering the Pond House restaurant, the scene started to clarify for Schools.
"The fountain,'' Schools said. "At home, we'd set up the sprinkler in the yard. Jason loved to go in and grab the sprinkler. I think he felt he could get out there and play in the fountain.''
But the water was deep and murky. Very quickly, he would have been in over his head, his feet sinking into the muck on the bottom.
Police divers found Jason's body at 9:10 p.m., about three hours after he went into the water.
"I saw the boy from the group home,'' Schools said of the worker who had brought Jason to the park. "There were tears in his eyes. He said he couldn't swim. He expressed his apologies. I still had compassion for the kid.''
But through the grief and the inevitable guilt, Schools felt rage. How could this happen? How could a worker who couldn't swim be entrusted with the care of a young man who loved water, at a city park with ponds?
"At the beginning, you're screaming with rage. It isn't fair,'' Schools said.
A state investigation into Jason's death confirmed neglect against the worker and the group home.
"The client was known to have a seizure disorder which required that staff remain within an arm's-length distance when [the client] was ambulating, and when out in the community,'' wrote the death investigator for the protection and advocacy office.
"The staff worker had been counseled by his supervisors on the previous day regarding the need to maintain a close distance between himself and the client,'' the investigator reported.
"The evidence further indicated that the agency did not have any procedures in place for knowing and monitoring the whereabouts of residents while on outings with the staff,'' the report said.
The worker was fired. A lawsuit between the family and the group home was settled. Kevin Schools can't discuss the terms, but said he felt empty afterward.
"The state has procedures, but not everything is followed. A lot of the staff in this field are well intentioned, but in some cases there is pure complacency,'' Schools said.
He said that's why he agreed to speak for this report.
"I want Jason's legacy to be that someone else doesn't die under these circumstances,'' Schools said. "But what do you do? You can't buy quality of care. It has to come from inside the heart.''
He drew an analogy to his job overhauling airplanes.
"With the FAA, everything is traceable to you. You're accountable. A lot of people's lives are at stake when you're in the air.
"In a way, the lives of people like Jason are in the hands of the caregivers. People have to be accountable. There's a lot at stake.''
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