Swing to be dedicated to Robert Manwill

Staff in New Plymouth pledge to work even harder to support students

kmoeller@idahostatesman.comOctober 29, 2009 

Students and staff at New Plymouth Elementary School are celebrating the life and memory of Robert Manwill with the dedication of a green swing in front of the school Thursday — a swing already in use by students. Robert’s death has affected the entire school and staff, who adopted a theme this year of “a caring heart.”

KATHERINE JONES — Katherine Jones / Idaho Statesma

A wisp of green ribbon attached to the lanyard that holds Carrie Aguas' jumble of keys isn't just frilly decoration.

The New Plymouth Elementary School principal says it's a constant reminder of the promises she made to herself in the wake of the death of Robert Manwill, an 8-year-old who would have started third grade at her school this fall.

"I want to spend more time listening," said Aguas, who has kept the ribbon since the day in July when she joined more than 2,000 people in Boise searching for the boy.

Staff and students at New Plymouth Elementary School have invited the public to the school to help remember at 10:15 a.m. Thursday, when they will dedicate a new swinging bench on the front lawn to Robert. A plaque at the top of the large green swing has the boy's photo, and the inscription reads, "Forever in Our Hearts."

The swing "is a pretty neat idea," said Ron Rouse, who watched his daughter Taci test the swing after school Wednesday. "It makes people realize how vulnerable kids are. You don't really think about something happening to somebody from your community. Then it happens."

Six-year-old Taci Rouse understands why the swing is there. "It's because Robert died," said Taci, who didn't know the boy.

New Plymouth is a small town about 45 minutes northwest of Boise. The elementary school has 430 students from preschool to fifth grade.

"None of us have gotten to the point where we can talk about him without crying," said Tammy Arnzen, a secretary at the school. "This is our little way of keeping a part of him."

The summer's events were traumatic for the staff and students.

"The little kids don't understand the finality of it all," Arnzen said.

Robert, who lived with his dad in New Plymouth, was reported missing from his mother's apartment in Boise on July 24. His body was found in a canal south of Boise on Aug. 3.

Robert's mother, Melissa Jenkins, and her boyfriend, Daniel Ehrlick, were indicted on charges of first-degree murder on Aug. 18. They have pleaded not guilty.

When the horrific details about Robert's death were released, friends warned Aguas and the boy's second-grade teacher, Christy Morales, not to read the newspaper articles or watch TV. So they didn't. They say they do not want to know; it's simply too painful.

School officials notified parents about Robert's death over the summer and asked them to talk to their own children about it. Aguas said staff were instructed to listen to students who wanted to talk about Robert at school, then ask them to discuss it with their parents.

Morales said she had no idea what to expect from the kids.

"I was worried I was going to have to address the fact that, sometimes, even your mother's not safe," she said, referring to the murder charge against Robert's mom.

But until the flier went out about Thursday's event, Morales had fielded very few questions or comments from students. Most have offered simple condolences.

"I'll be standing in the hallway, and one will walk by and say, 'I'm really sorry about Robert,' " she said.

Morales said she heard two or three students talking about the Robert Manwill Day flier get into an argument about who killed the boy.

"I said, 'We're not going to go there,'" Morales recalled Tuesday. "This is not the time or place."

School officials don't believe there's anything they could have done to save Robert from his terrible fate. During the school year, when he visited his mother and lived with his father, school officials saw no physical signs of abuse.

"I'm really good at reading kids, and I can make a good connection with kids when I notice things aren't quite right," Morales said. "The only thing I had (noticed) with him was that I felt like he was a very serious kid."

Morales said that wouldn't be unusual for a child whose parents are divorced and experiencing related difficulties. Robert moved from Boise to New Plymouth to live with his dad midway through first grade, when his mother had complications from a pregnancy.

"He came with the weight of two families on his shoulders," Morales said. "I never saw anything that he wasn't loved by his present family."

She describes him as a sweet, quiet and gentle boy who wore his feelings on his sleeve and loved to give hugs. When frustrated or upset, he would cry and put his head on his desk, she said.

In the wake of Robert's death, the staff at New Plymouth want to be sure students feel safe and supported at school, Aguas said. The theme at the school for the 2009-10 school year is "a caring heart."

"We've always had a caring staff. ... It's paying a little more attention to everything a child says," Aguas said.

Morales and Arnzen say their grief about Robert's death has been punctuated with anger.

"It's never going to make sense, no matter what comes out (in court)," said Morales, a mother of two boys.

Aguas recently misplaced her lanyard and keys. She was frantic - not because she'd have to re-key all the doors at the school - but because she feared she'd lost Robert's ribbon.

"This ribbon is going to last the rest of my career," Aguas said.

Katherine Jones contributed to this report. Katy Moeller: 377-6413

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