TEMPLE TERRACE, Fla. - It’s a tragedy a family says could have been prevented.
On Friday, the family of Jesse Schillingford filed a wrongful death lawsuit against charter school The Pepin Academies and the City of Temple Terrace. Last September, Jesse drowned at a back-to-school pool party at a Temple Terrace rec center, with teachers, chaperones, and lifeguards nearby.
You can read the lawsuit at http://wfts.tv/18R5m5c .
The I-Team obtained exclusive surveillance video from the Schillingford family’s attorney and spoke to Jesse’s parents about why they believe his death could have been prevented.
In the video, taken by several surveillance cameras at the rec center, a large crowd of children and adults can be seen in and around the pool, as well as inside the nearby gym area.
The morning of the party, Jesse’s father Skelford Shillingford claims he warned a Pepin Academies administrator that his son wasn’t a good swimmer.
“They gave me assurance that he would be safe,” Skelford Shillingford said.
“He said the lifeguard is going to be there, the chaperone is going to be there, some parents, and the teachers are going to be there, too,” said Jesse’s stepmother Lucille Shillingford.
But Jesse would never return home from the party.
“Why did it have to be Jesse? That was my only son. Every day I go to school or work, I think of him,” said Skelford Shillingford.
Jesse was autistic and had ADHD, and he was loved by his teachers and classmates. Many wrote heartfelt letters to Jesse’s parents after his death.
“He had a million-dollar smile. It just melts your heart,” Lucille said.
The I-Team reviewed the surveillance videos with the Shillingford family’s attorney, Cory Baird.
Baird showed us the moment Jesse Shillingford climbed the water slide and slid into the deep end of the pool. In the video, Jesse can be seen struggling to stay afloat, and then sinking below the water.
At the same time, on another surveillance camera, Baird points out that one of the three lifeguards was inside the gymnasium, not near the pool. The other two lifeguards cannot be seen from the perspective of the camera.
After Jesse spent about five and a half minutes underwater, another student noticed Jesse and notified a lifeguard. One of the lifeguards told police he couldn’t see the bottom of the pool, possibly due to rain.
“The laws require that you can see every part of the bottom of the pool in order to keep the pool open,” Baird said.
After the lifeguard pulls Jesse from the water, someone calls 911, and rescuers attempt to resuscitate him. Jesse was taken to the hospital, but doctors were unable to save him.
“I couldn’t believe my eyes. You shouldn’t be seeing stuff like that,” Lucille said.
On the rental form for the party, Pepin staff members indicated to the Temple Terrace rec center that there would be a maximum of 100 people at the party. But according to police reports, a staff member told investigators 130 to 150 tickets were sold, and no head count was taken.
“So that didn’t allow Temple Terrace rec center to potentially staff it the adequate way,” Baird said.
The Pepin Academies, Inc. wouldn’t answer specific questions, but provided us with a statement from founder and community liaison Crisha Scolaro which reads,
“Pepin Academies is deeply saddened by the loss of Jesse. Our students, faculty, administration and parents are all devastated by this tragedy. Jesse was a very dear member of our family. We miss him greatly.
Our team has held this event at the City of Temple Terrace recreation center for the past five years in the very same manner without incident or complaint. We proceeded in the same manner with the City of Temple Terrace, which was to provide a safe facility with adequate lighting and life guards. We have received no explanation for why the life guards on duty were not in position to see and save Jesse.
The school invited all of our student’s parents to attend this event; some parents chose to attend and some did not. Every parent was required to provide consent, purchase a ticket and provide transportation to and from the event in order for their child to participate.. As we have done in years past, we also hired an off duty police officer, as required by the recreation center. So although we felt that the measures we had taken would keep all of our students and parents safe, at no time did we give assurances in writing or verbally that students who attended without their parents would be kept from getting into the pool.
We cannot express in words how sorry we are that this has occurred. Our entire team continues to grieve for the loss of Jesse. Out of respect for him and his family, we have decided to never hold this event again.”
The City of Temple Terrace, which employs the lifeguards, declined to comment due to advice from their legal counsel.
Jesse’s family believes he’d still be alive today if Pepin, the city, and the lifeguards had paid more attention.
“They should have been there for the kids