By Giavonni Nickson
Only a few weeks into the school year a Calumet New Tech high school freshman died in the school’s Olympic sized swimming pool. Lake County sheriff’s officers were called to the school at 3900 Calhoun St., for a report of a possible drowning.
Wednesday, September 11, students discovered 14-year-old freshman Curtis Walton Jr. non-responsive at the bottom of the pool. Walton was first taken to the Community Hospital in Munster then airlifted to Comer Children’s Hospital in Chicago. He was pronounced dead at 12:55 a.m. Thursday, September 12, by the Cook County medical examiner’s office.
The tragic incident occurred after a hot and muggy football practice when Walton and other players went to the pool to cool off. According to witnesses there were approximately 25 students in the pool. At some point students discovered Walton at the bottom of the pool. Lake Ridge New Tech Schools Superintendent Sharon Johnson-Shirley said football coaches Andy Trevino, Rick Good, and two student trainers were among the first responders to immediately administer lifesaving measures.
“We had people on guard. The coach, as a matter of fact, was in the seat to look over the students and saw two other students going down to bring this kid up and he responded immediately. All of our coaches were there and they responded immediately,” Johnson-Shirley said.
Teachers and students say that Watson was a well-liked student and a top varsity athlete. The freshman’s teachers say it will be tough to carry on without him.
“Losing a student is just at the top of my list of one of the worst things that could possibly happen,” said Johnson-Shirley. “Right now, my attention is on our students, and our coaches because they are really, really not doing well and neither am I.”
Thursday, the morning after Watson drowned, Johnson-Shirley was at the school, coordinating counseling efforts as well and assisting Lake County Sheriff’s detectives with their investigation. Questions have been raised about cameras in the school that may provide more insight into what happened.
According to Johnson-Shirley, “We do have cameras but there was a storm a couple of nights ago that caused some camera damage. We were in the process of installing new cameras. I don’t think the cameras were working at the time but I’m not sure of that.”
It is not known if Watson was an avid swimmer, or if he had any pre-existing medical conditions. An investigation is still underway.
At Calumet New Tech, somber grief stricken students, faculty, and coaches received support from partnering school districts and community organizations.
“We have a lot of people on hand for mental health. Edgewater, Community Health Net, Salvation Army, and local pastors have all reached out. Partnering school districts Gary and Lake Central have reached out to offer support,” said Johnson-Shirley in appreciation of the outreach. “When something happens in our district we are one and we come together as a community.”
Right now any students or family members seeking grief support are welcome to come to the school or call for on hand grief support to help navigate the weighted impact of Watson’s sudden and tragic death.
“We will keep the immediate family and school family in prayer. Hug your children because we never know at what time or when death will occur. We have to let them know we love them,” said Johnson-Shirley.
Calumet faced Whiting in football Friday night just two days after losing Walton. The Calumet New Tech Warriors took some time to remember their former teammate before kickoff as Calumet’s cheerleaders released 19 red balloons for Walton’s number 19 jersey. The school displayed a short video tribute for the freshman on its scoreboard and both teams held a moment of silence to honor his memory.
Giavonni is a passionate freelance writer native of Gary IN. She covers business, politics, and community schools for the Chicago/Gary Crusader.