October 09, 2008
By Damian Mann
A 6-year-old Jacksonville Elementary schoolboy who nearly drowned Tuesday in a nearby irrigation ditch remained on life support late Wednesday as his parents questioned how school officials could have let this happen.
"I told them point blank that I hold them totally responsible for my child's condition," said his father, Phillip Baehne, 61, of Central Point.
Luke Baehne is on a ventilator at Doernbecher Children's Hospital in Portland. His doctors give him a 50-50 chance of survival, his father said. The hospital lists the boy in critical condition.
"He has swelling of the brain and he went without oxygen," said Baehne. "His heart and everything stopped. He was basically dead."
Standing next to his son's bed at the hospital, Baehne said dozens of tubes and wires were attached to the boy, monitoring his health and keeping him alive.
"It's touch and go right now," he said. "If it gets worse, he will die."
He said Luke is about 4 feet 4 inches tall, weighs about 42 pounds and has autism. He is enrolled in STEPS, a life-skills program through Southern Oregon Education Service District for children with autism or severe disabilities. STEPS is operated separately from other activities at the elementary school.
Baehne described his son as active and full of curiosity. He said his son likes to run, but will usually stop if someone yells out after him.
He said Luke was fascinated with water and liked being outdoors.
"He's a toughy, and believe me he's fighting for his life right now," he said.
While events leading up to Luke's disappearance from school are still being pieced together, some details have emerged.
After a recess at Jacksonville Elementary on Tuesday, school personnel began a frantic search for Luke when they discovered he was missing sometime around 1 p.m.
Jacksonville police received a call at 1:40 p.m. that the boy was in the water.
Gail Durst, a teacher's aide, found him floating in an irrigation ditch about 125 to 150 yards from the school grounds, according to Jacksonville Police Chief David Towe.
She wasn't strong enough to pull him out of the water, but managed to call 9-1-1 as she held his head up. Durst left her phone on at the edge of the irrigation ditch.
Durst was up to her knees in the water trying to keep the boy from slipping under. "She is still pretty shook up," said Towe.
He said he jumped into the water to retrieve the boy. He estimated that a nearby culvert was almost 3 feet in diameter and the water was running just a few inches below the top.
Towe said investigators hadn't determined where Luke had entered the water or whether he had slid down the bank. He said the area where the boy was found was roughly 6 feet square or slightly larger.
Baehne praised Durst and the hospitals that took care of his son. "Gail — without her, he would have been gone already," he said.
Baehne said the school had both his home phone and an emergency number, but failed to call him when they found Luke.
Instead, school officials went to the Old Stage Road bus stop where he normally picks up Luke, and he was told about the accident at 2:45 p.m.
"They said our boy was dead," Baehne said.
A few minutes later, a policeman apologized and said Luke had been resuscitated and gave Baehne and his wife, Crystal, a ride to the hospital, Baehne said.
Medford School District Superintendent Phil Long said he didn't know why the parents weren't called.
He said investigators with both the police and school are trying to determine the sequence of events.
He said Principal Rick Snyder and another school official went to the bus stop, but Long said they didn't say Luke was dead.
"They had encouraged the family to get to the hospital," he said.
He said the school district's main concern right now is the boy and his family.
The district will be reviewing how the tragedy occurred and whether anything should be changed.
"We will sort the pieces out and see if anything could have been done or should have been done," he said.
Jacksonville Elementary officials contacted by the Mail Tribune referred all questions to the superintendent.
Within the past 10 years the elementary school has expressed concern about the Medford Irrigation Ditch and the safety of children. As a result, the portion of the ditch near the school was covered.
Long said the school district does everything it can to make sure children are safe on campus.
"Once they are off the campus, the hazards are there," he said.
ESD Superintendent Steve Boyarsky said there were four teachers' assistants and one teacher in the classroom that day. They monitor the students at all times, he said.
"They are very concerned about student safety," he said.
He said 10 to 12 employees of both Medford schools and the ESD looked for the boy.
He said there is a fence around the school with gates that make it easy for the students to come and go.
An exact timeline is still being constructed to determine when Luke went missing.
The ESD is also reviewing its protocols in keeping track of special needs students to see if anything different needs to be done, he said.
Boyarsky said some of these students are medically fragile, are wheelchair-bound or require tube feeding.
The ESD runs 23 special needs classrooms in 10 school districts throughout Southern Oregon.
Baehne said he and his wife and two grown daughters are prepared for the worst with Luke.
"If he passes on, we're going to donate his organs to other kids," he said.
He said his family wanted to express appreciation to everyone who has offered sympathy or helped out the family during this crisis.
"We want to thank everybody for their prayers and their understanding about Luke," he said.