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5-yr-old walks out of school, no one notices

8:24 AM, Jan 16, 2013   |    comments
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An Atlanta mom wants to know how her 5-year-old son was able to walk away from school Monday afternoon, and no one even noticed he'd left.

The Overview

It was an epic school security failure -- one that is so simple to prevent.

"I started crying," said the mom, Heather Clemmons, recalling the moment, Monday afternoon, when she heard that her son was missing.

As she spoke Monday evening, her son Jordan -- her whole life, her heart and soul -- snuggled next to her on their couch.

What happened to Jordan at his school, Atlanta Preparatory Academy charter school in the Vine City community of northwest Atlanta, still had Heather shaking with terror and anger -- and relief that he came out of it okay.

According to the school principal, Jordan's teacher mistakenly let him walk out of his classroom and down the hall by himself.

The school's security camera video, accessed later, shows that Jordan walked down a staircase and out the back door, and walked away from the school.

And no one noticed what he did; no one realized he was gone until several minutes later when he was supposed to be picked up at the end of the school day -- and that's when no one could find him.

"You know, you hear stories all the time about kids being snatched and something happening to them," Clemmons said, unable to hold back her tears, "and I just thank God that he was all right, that's, you know ..." She paused, catching her breath. "Sorry, I was just really ... I was very worried about him."

No one searched harder for Jordan than his teacher, and she's the one who found him an hour later, safe, playing outside his home with another child, less than a mile from school. Jordan had found his way home by himself in that often crime-ridden area immediately west of the Georgia Dome.

The school's principal, Dr. Lynnette Walker, apologized personally to Clemmons Tuesday morning, and Tuesday afternoon spoke with 11Alive's Jon Shirek, who asked her, "What are you doing to make sure this never happens again?"

"One, is to meet with the teachers, it's a professional development reminder," Walker said.

In other words, teachers are supposed to know better, never to let small children out of their sight.

"We need to make sure that [the children] are monitored 100 percent of the time," Dr. Walker said. "And that, unfortunately, didn't happen yesterday."

"They need tighter security," Clemmons said. "They've got all those cameras, but [the cameras] are not going to do any good if you're not watching them, and if you don't have anybody patrolling the hallways or anything."

About 450 children attend Atlanta Preparatory Academy charter school, grades K through 8.

Monday night, unrelated to Jordan's experience, the Atlanta School Board voted not to renew the school's charter, citing poor math scores and other reasons.

Dr. Walker responded Tuesday that the charter school -- barely four years old and located in a troubled neighborhood where families are grateful it's there -- is showing steady improvement academically and helping the many students who are behind to catch up and become good students. She said the school is going to apply for a state charter to try to stay open after this school year.

So Clemmons is realizing that fixing the security lapse should be easy compared to everything else the school must now do to succeed and stay open.

The Details

Heather Clemmons is attending college, studying early childhood education and planning to be a teacher.

On Monday, Clemmons knew she would be in her college class, so she had arranged for a family friend, Laura Francis, a new mom, to pick up Jordan from school Monday afternoon, bring him back to Clemmons' and Jordan's apartment and watch him along with her own baby.

"And I got to the school at 3:00," 45 minutes early, Francis said. She waited in the visitors' lobby in the main office near the front entrance of the school.

At about 3:10 pm, Francis said, Jordan's teacher walked by while Jordan and the other kindergartners were with another teacher finishing up a gym class. Jordan's teacher authorized Laura, a familiar face at the school, to take Jordan home early.

Francis said the teacher returned to her classroom as the other children were getting back.

According to what Jordan's mom said she learned later, the teacher told Jordan to go to the main office, but did not tell him why.

"Jordan thought he was in trouble," Clemmons said later, "Jordan didn't go to the office because he thought he was in trouble."

"Unfortunately," the principal, Dr. Walker said, "she [the teacher] didn't escort him to the main office."

According to Dr. Walker, the school's surveillance cameras, which were not being monitored in real time by anyone, show Jordan meandering up and down the hall between his classroom and the main office.

The distance between the classroom and the main office is under 100 yards, shorter than the length of a football field.

At about 3:15, Jordan went into the boys' bathroom, and when he came out he lingered in the hallway a bit longer. Then he walked down the back staircase near his classroom, and at 3:22 he pushed open the back door and walked outside. That's the door he enters every morning when his mom brings him to school. The camera at that door shows him walking away from the school and down the street in the direction of his home, which is less than a mile away.

Dr. Walker said the school would not release the video to the public, and that she was the only one from the school authorized to speak about what happened.

Laura Francis said that before school let out at 3:45, she and teachers and administrators were already looking throughout the school for Jordan.

"I started going around the school just calling his name and calling his name, trying to find him. And we couldn't find him anywhere. They started getting all the kids out of school and everything, and they still couldn't find him anywhere," Francis said.

Francis called Jordan's mother's cell phone, "and I had to tell her they couldn't find Jordan, and I was crying and she was crying."

"I was hysterical," Clemmons said, "I just didn't know what to do, I felt like I was helpless."

Clemmons immediately drove to Jordan's school.

While she was on the way, someone looked at the surveillance video and saw Jordan leaving the school by himself.

Francis said Jordan's teacher jumped into her own car and started driving through Vine City, and had a hunch he might have walked home.

And that's where she found him, some time after 4 p.m., outside his apartment complex playing with another child who lives at the complex.

Clemmons said the teacher apologized profusely to her.

Dr. Walker said that after school on Tuesday, she had a staff meeting to emphasize to teachers never to let small children out of their sight.

"This isn't something new that we're teaching teachers," Dr. Walker said, "but this is a strong, professional development reminder that teachers are 100 percent responsible for children from the time they walk into their classrooms until the time that they leave. And so we're really reminding this teacher as well as others to make sure that children are escorted -- our primary students, kindergarten, first and second grades -- are escorted to locations, that they're not travelling alone."

Clemmons said the teacher is not the only one responsible. She said Dr. Walker is, too, for what Clemmons calls overall lax security at the school, including not having anyone routinely monitor the live surveillance cameras, and not having adults serving as hallway monitors.

Clemmons was not consoled that a security lapse like this had never before occurred at the school.

"It only takes one time for something to happen to him, for something to happen to any child," she said.

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