New Castle News

September 12, 2012

Special needs child wanders away from school

Debbie Wachter
New Castle News

NEW CASTLE — A special needs child who wandered away from West Side School has district officials reconsidering their dismissal policy.

The frantic mother of the 6-year-old girl said that thankfully, her child was unharmed, found wandering near the back entrance to the Westview Terrace housing projects, almost a half-hour after she had left the school.

Her daughter is a first-grader and, typically, she rides the bus home to her father’s house on the East Side, the mom explained.

But on Friday, Jamie Smith, who lives on Park Avenue, was to pick up her daughter at school.



HOW IT HAPPENED

Smith said she called the school mid-morning to say she would pick up her daughter that day. She said she arrived between 3:25 and 3:30 — almost 10 minutes after dismissal of the children who walk home.

They are released before children are called for the buses.

“I normally get her inside from her classroom,” Smith said.

When she went in, she was told her daughter had been sent out with the walkers, “but no one could find her.”

The school nurse was at the door, according to Smith, and a secretary said she had seen the child leave.

She said she had learned the girl’s teacher had told her to go outside to see if her mother was there, and if she wasn’t, go back in. Smith was told her daughter had repeated that to the teacher, then left.

But because of her disability, the child is not capable of remembering that, she said.

Her child’s name was called over the loudspeaker, and school employees searched the classrooms and restroom but didn’t find her. They also checked each of the buses parked in front of the school, but “she wasn’t on any of them,” her mother said.

Bus drivers were alerted and communicated on their radios, and the next step was to call the police.

Meanwhile, school secretary Patty Christofer got into her car, drove around and found the child, according to principal Carmen Nocera.

Smith said it was close to 4 p.m. when Christofer delivered the child to the school.

She said her daughter’s emotional state “was fine,” because she didn’t know she was lost.



WHO’S TO BLAME?

Smith and her sister, Kim Campbell met with Nocera Tuesday about the incident.

“He said they changed protocol for her and that she would never be out of adult supervision again,” Smith said, adding, “My concern is for any 6-year-old, not just my special needs child. Neither her father nor I feel safe enough to send her back to school.”

She said she is looking into possibilities of sending her to another district with a special needs program.

“These are the people who are required by law, to whom you entrust your children,” Campbell commented of the school.

It is Smith’s belief the child’s teacher should face disciplinary measures for sending her out of the classroom unsupervised. She noted the teacher had made reference to the child’s situation on her Facebook page.

Nocera would not comment on the teacher, saying it is a personnel issue.

He said Smith had called and told the school secretary the child should be sent out with the walkers because she was going to pick her up, and “the mother was running a little late.”



REVISED PROTOCOL

As a result of the incident, the school has revised its dismissal protocol. Nocera wrote a letter to parents Friday, saying that if they change their child’s dismissal, they must send a note to the school with the child that day or call the school by 3 p.m.

“On Friday, a bus student’s schedule was changed and this child was dismissed as a walker,” he said. “The child left the school and unknowingly began to walk home.”

The letter emphasizes parents should be at the school before 3:20 p.m. if they are picking up children dismissed as walkers, and they will exit the front doors at that time.

If they are not going to be on time, they must inform the school before 3:20 p.m. The child then will be kept in his or her homeroom until the parent arrives at the school, Nocera wrote. The student will be released once the parent is in the school office.

He also reminded parents of children who walk home that they leave at 3:20 p.m. and should be home at their normal arrival time. For the safety of all students not riding the buses, they are encouraged to walk together and go directly home.

Nocera said that at dismissal time, two teachers always stand in the hallway and doorway.

“We had some issues on Friday,” he said. “That will not happen again. We will have people in place to make sure this doesn’t happen.”

He added there has to be a shared responsibility among everyone involved.

“There were issues here that if the parent had come on time, this wouldn’t have happened,” Nocera said.

Smith’s child has a person assigned to her who leaves at 3 p.m.

“There were some holes in the policy that I revamped to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

He may consider having the assigned adult go to school later and leave with the child in the afternoon or he will make sure an adult leaves with her, he said.

“We try to do the very best to make sure our children are safe,” Nocera said. “I apologize wholeheartedly to the parents. We go over and above at our school for the safety of our children.

“As a parent, this was a frightening thing. I can only hope that it doesn’t happen again. We’re taking steps to make sure it doesn’t.”

(Email: dwachter@ncnewsonline.com)