A 7-year-old autistic boy was discovered floating lifeless in a city swimming pool in West Baltimore yesterday after he apparently wandered away from his nearby school, police and his father said.
Tyji Chester, a second-grader at Lafayette Elementary School, was pulled from the Central Rosemont pool in the 2600 block of Winchester St. by a teacher shortly after noon. The boy was pronounced dead at 1:33 p.m. at St. Agnes Hospital, after doctors were unable to revive him, authorities said.
It was unclear how Tyji - whose father said he was assigned to a class with just one other child - slipped away during school hours unnoticed and managed to scale a 10-foot-high fence surrounding the pool.
Standing by that fence and struggling to make sense of his son's death, Thomas Chester said the school had assigned Tyji, who lives with his mother, an individual aide to watch him.
"He wandered off," said the father. "He's an autistic child. They wandered around looking for him. He's supposed to have a one-on-one with him at all times. Evidently they didn't monitor him like they should have."
Chester, 40, said witnesses told him they saw his son climb over the fence with the help of three other children.
"Three other little kids put him over the fence," he said. "He hang-dropped from the inside down. But the other little boys didn't get in the pool. My son took his clothes off and jumped in the pool. They climbed over there, too. And when my son jumped into the water, and they saw that he couldn't swim - they said he was splashing -the kids ran away."
Police would not confirm those details last night and were awaiting an autopsy report from the state medical examiner's office on the cause of the death, which appeared to have been a drowning.
The pool, which has not opened for the season, is enclosed by the fence with a locked gate. It is less than 100 yards from Lafayette Elementary and adjacent to a Police Athletic League recreation center.
Connie A. Brown, director of the city Department of Recreation and Parks, said the pool was filled with water a week ago to prepare for its opening June 24. He said the city's pools are typically filled three weeks before opening for maintenance work and to prepare for mandatory Health Department inspections.
"The fence is intact; the gate is locked," Brown said. "As best I could determine, he had to climb on or be assisted by someone. As you can see, this is a very secure wrought-iron fence."
Parents whose children attend Lafayette said the doors of the school were left open during the time Tyji was reported missing, while the school was holding a kindergarten graduation.
Chester said Tyji's mother was told by school officials that he left during the graduation ceremony.
"She said that he was in the assembly, and somehow he ran out," Chester said. "I don't know how he ran out of a graduation assembly and don't nobody see a little child run out."
Calling the incident "a terrible tragedy," school system spokeswoman Edie House referred questions to city police, who are taking the lead in the investigation.
House said crisis counselors would be at the school today to talk to children, staff and parents.
Carol Brockington, president of the Lafayette PTA, described the boy as "a loving child, always pleasant," who often ran into the school office to say hello to the principal.
Brockington said parents are devastated by his death.
"Words can't express the way that I feel," she said.
"There could not possibly be a more tragic situation," said Brian D. Morris, city school board chairman, adding, "We will find out what happened and deal with it from there. Nothing can be done to bring back this precious life."
Special-education students are sometimes assigned an individual aide to take care of their needs during the school day. For instance, children who are physically handicapped and cannot care for themselves might have an aide to help them during classes. The aides are usually paid with federal funds.
Though a federal judge ordered managers from the Maryland State Department of Education last summer to oversee special education in the city schools, state officials said last night that it was the city school system's responsibility to ensure that the boy had his aide.
Carol Ann Baglin, assistant state superintendent for special education, said the state managers would investigate any complaints that aides were not being provided, but so far have not received any such complaints.
Meanwhile, neighbors said both children and adults frequently climb over the fence and swim in the pool during off-hours.
While Brown said the fence is adequate, he termed the breaching of fences around pools during unstaffed hours as "a problem citywide."
"I think we've taken all reasonable steps to reinforce them," he said. "There's no way we could have someone there 24 hours a day."
"We certainly don't want to put barbed wire on it," Brown added. "Short of putting some type of barrier that could cause injury to people, there's not a lot more we can do."
Frances M. Newman, 66, who lives across the street from the pool, said that pool trespassing is a continuing problem there, and that she saw people in the pool late at night last week. Police rarely catch them, she said.
"This don't make no sense," Newman said. "That little boy is dead. I'd like to know who the person was who was supposed to be watching this kid."
Sun reporters Richard Irwin and Liz Bowie contributed to this article.