Principal: Child leaving school ‘won’t happen again’

Published 5:07 pm Thursday, August 18, 2011

A 4-year-old girl at Jones-Wheat Elementary School left the campus Wednesday morning, before being found by a citizen and returned safely to school.

Dr. Larry Clark, principal at JWES, said that the girl was in her Pre-K classroom at approximately 10 a.m. when she slipped out the door and began to wander the halls. Clark said the class of 22 students was divided into three groups and the children were switching group activities, when the girl slipped out without either of the two teachers seeing her.

Clark said surveillance video shows that the girl stopped at a bathroom door and wandered up and down the hallway before running to the front door, and then outside. The girl reportedly walked several blocks down Shotwell Street before she was seen by an employee at the New Era Detail Shop, next to Dean Chrysler Dodge Jeep. The employee then called Clark, who came to pick up the girl.

“We’re going back and reviewing all of our safety procedures for Pre-K—not just at this school but county-wide—to make sure something like this never happens again,” he said.

Clark met with the girl’s mother, Melissa Hodnett, both Wednesday afternoon and Thursday morning.

Dr. Fred Rayfield, superintendent of the Decatur County Schools, said he met Thursday morning with Clark; Catherine Gossett, the system’s Pre-K director; and Dr. Linda B. Lumpkin, assistant superintendent of Decatur County Schools. He  also spoke with Clark and other Jones-Wheat personnel several times Wednesday.

“I was brought into the situation late [Wednesday] afternoon,” he said. “We’ve conducted a thorough investigation with the adults that were present. We’re seeing what we can change or improve to make sure this doesn’t happen again. We’re looking at everything — protocols, procedures, safety measures, even schedules.”

Rayfield said administrators were also “dealing with the personnel side of it, very aggressively and quickly.” When asked if those consequences might include suspensions, Rayfield declined to elaborate.

Clark said the camera footage shows the girl exiting the classroom door at the same time that another teacher was walking down the hall. He said no other adults saw the girl before she slipped out the front door.

“She was coming out of the room just as [the other teacher] was walking up the hall,” Clark said. “When you see the door open and you know that the girl’s teachers are inside the classroom, then you’re probably under the assumption that the teachers knew she was leaving to go into the hall.

“There were no other teachers in the hallway, other than that. They were all in their classrooms, teaching.”

Clark said the surveillance cameras are not monitored at all times, but are used to record footage.

“Believe me, I wish we did have somebody who could monitor them all the time,” he said.

Clark said the state’s maximum class size for pre-kindergarten is 22 students, which is two students more than the maximum class size in the 2010-11 school year. According to the Decatur County Schools’ website, most of the system’s Pre-K classrooms have one lead teacher and one paraprofessional as an aide.