13 years ago
Accountability a watchword for teens
Late-night paddle boat trip turns deadly for 3 students
By Lisa Black and Steve Schmadeke
10:52 PM CST, November 14, 2008
They were smart kids with bright futures and an old-fashioned sense of
brotherhood: When one messed up, they all paid a price.
But early Friday, some of the teens who made up Minority Men, a
leadership group at Chicago's North Lawndale College Prep, made a
mistake from which they could not recover.
Three of them drowned in the Fox River in Algonquin after sneaking out
of a camp lodge and dragging paddle boats to the frigid, swift-moving
water. The boats, which had been set aside for the winter, had holes
in the bottom where drainage plugs had been removed.
Two teens couldn't make it to shore when their boat began to sink,
officials said. A third jumped in and tried to save them. All of them
The tragedy crushed the high school's community, from the group's
surviving members to the victims' families to all who knew and loved
"He was always helping," sophomore Datashia Warren said of her friend
Melvin Choice III, 17. "When you needed a shoulder he was right
there."The other victims were Jimmy Avant, 18, and Adrian Alexander
They were among 31 North Lawndale teens who went to YMCA Camp
Algonquin last week for an eight-day retreat organized by VisionQuest
International, an Atlanta organization that trains young people in
It was just another trip for Minority Men, a program for
high-achieving students aiming for success in college and
beyond. Brigette Jones-Cooper, Jones' mother, said the group toured
college campuses in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina.
"They get them ready for life as young leaders," she said. "They help
them with their classwork. They make them well-rounded young men: no
gangs, no drugs.
"All of them were good kids."
Accountability was the group's hallmark, said Jones' sister, Chimere.
"If one has bad grades, they all have to study together," she
said. "If one . . . has a Saturday detention all of them have a
Still, as the camp came to a close, officials said about half of the
group sneaked out of the lodge early Friday, apparently undetected by
nine chaperons in the building.
The teens had been warned to stay away from the water, YMCA officials
said. But in what seemed to be a late attempt at unauthorized fun,
they hauled six 300-pound paddle boats about 150 feet to the river.
They likely didn't realize the boats had been prepared for winter,
their cork-sized plugs removed to allow precipitation to drain. The
boats went into the 42-degree, pitch-black water, and at least
one?occupied by two victims?began to submerge.
"I heard people running and yelling on the shore at around 1:30 in the
morning," said Pam Shumway, who lives across river. "I heard them
yelling, 'Get out of the boat! Get out of the water!'"
A third teen leaped into the water and tried to save the others,
authorities said. But the current was strong, and he went under too.
Firefighters and rescuers scrambled to the river, but it was too
late. They found the first body just before 6 a.m., 50 feet from shore
in 10 feet of water. About five hours later, they recovered the other
Amid talk of re-examining school policies, some relatives questioned
why the camp hadn't secured the boats. Some students, meanwhile, noted
that risk-taking was part of being young.
"They didn't know what they were about to get into," Walter Anderson,
16, said. "We are going to be kids."
Tribune reporters Carolyn Starks, Azam Ahmed, Sara Olkon, Carlos
Sadovi and Gerry Smith, and freelance reporter Amanda Marrazzo
contributed to this story, which was written by Tribune reporter John
Copyright © 2008, Chicago Tribune