Student who died in Belize remembered for smarts, quirky personality

He was smart, gifted at playing the flute, and had a quirky personality filled with a sarcasm beyond his years. And though he was only a high school freshman, Tomari Aliijah Jackson was on the trip of a lifetime. He was supposed to celebrate his 15th birthday Monday.

Along with 31 of his North Cobb High School classmates and six chaperones, Tomari arrived Saturday in Belize. The group planned to spend several days at the Monkey Bay Wildlife Sanctuary on a school-sponsored trip as part of the North Cobb magnet program.

The group wasted no time beginning explorations. Tomari and the others hiked before stopping to splash in shallow water near a river bank, the Cobb school system said. It was there that the 14-year-old was last seen alive.

Somehow, Tomari disappeared, and local investigators were told the boy was missing. After a search, Tomari was found dead. No details were released late Monday on how Tomari died or whether he had drowned. But his death stunned the school community, district leaders and other Cobb schools, including many who used social media to express condolences.

“On behalf of our entire school district, I offer my sincere condolences to Tomari’s family,” Cobb schools Superintendent Chris Ragsdale said in an emailed statement. “We are deeply saddened by the loss of this talented North Cobb High School scholar and musician.”

School leaders contacted the parents of all students on the trip, and arrangements were made for the group to return to Atlanta.

After attending Cooper Middle School in Austell, Tomari was accepted into the North Cobb School for International Studies, part of the North Cobb High campus. The competitive program "provides an accelerated educational experience for high school students emphasizing the development of global perspectives on politics, culture, scientific understandings and communication," according to the school's website. Graduates must complete an extensive research project, and studies emphasize Advanced Placement courses, international travel and cultural exchanges.

Exceptionally Talented

During his first week of high school, a small group of girls spotted Tomari in the lunchroom alone and asked him and another boy to join them. Bahaar Esfahani was one of those girls, and she said their invitation launched the first of many group lunches at school.

“We all became friends,” Bahaar said Monday.

Bahaar, another freshman in the magnet program, had several classes with Tomari, including freshman band, where both played the flute. Tomari, one of only two boys who played that instrument, was exceptionally talented, his friend said.

Always Friendly

The cost of the trip prevented Bahaar from going to Belize, she said. But news of her friend’s death spread quickly among her classmates, out of school this week for winter break.

“His sense of humor was weird, but it was funny. The sarcastic sense of humor,” Bahaar said. “He didn’t talk much, but when he did, you could definitely tell it was Tomari.”

Sometimes he’d play games on his phone during lunch, but Tomari was always friendly, Bahaar said.

Thoughtful, Generous

For her first school project in ninth grade, part of a leadership class, Bahaar was partnered with Tomari. It was the first chance she’d had to get to know Tomari better, and she was impressed with how hard he worked.

“He definitely did his work and he definitely did it well,” Bahaar said. “When it comes to formal things, he definitely tried to find charming ways to add his own touch.”

Tomari was also thoughtful and generous, especially when it came to his snacks. During first period, Bahaar remembers asking Tomari for some of his Cheez-It crackers because she didn’t have time to eat breakfast before heading to catch the school bus. He always shared.

“After a few weeks, I didn’t even have to ask any more,” Bahaar said.

No information was available late Monday on funeral arrangements.