Annette John-Hall: Untended first grader walks away from school

When Dannielle Smith went to pick up her son, Christopher, at Whittier's aftercare program, no one knew where he was.
When Dannielle Smith went to pick up her son, Christopher, at Whittier's aftercare program, no one knew where he was. (ASHLEE ESPINAL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: December 06, 2011

Dannielle Smith didn't know what else to do, so she reached out to me.

I'm glad she did. Because I can at least share her story as a cautionary tale.

Imagine if you are a working single parent new to the area. You register your child for the school's aftercare program.

Any parent should have a reasonable expectation that an adult in authority would make sure their kid gets from the classroom to the cafeteria - where the aftercare program is housed - without incident.

So you can imagine Smith's distress when she arrived at the John G. Whittier School cafeteria to pick up her son, Christopher, on a rainy Tuesday evening - only to be told that, no, Chris wasn't there, no one had seen him.

"I was freaking out," says Smith, who is a medical assistant at Einstein Medical Center. "It's dark outside, it's raining, and he's only 6."

Smith, 34, had just moved to North Philly from South Jersey so she would be closer to her job. She enrolled Christopher in the aftercare program on Nov. 21, his first day at Whittier.

Life had given Smith her share of struggles. But she had gradually gotten back on her feet after living for months in a Burlington County church shelter. Through it all, Christopher has remained her No. 1 priority.

Of her only child, Smith says, "I do not neglect my son. I go to work. I come home. That's it."

Smith was told that teachers would escort students to the playground, and then wait for an aftercare staffer to take the kids to the cafeteria. That put Smith's mind at ease, since Chris had a learning disability. Never mind he was new and didn't know his way around.

But in retrospect, Smith says, her mother's intuition told her that she should have double-checked on Christopher when the school secretary called to tell her that he had been switched to a less- crowded classroom on that first day.

Smith says she immediately asked the secretary whether aftercare staff members would know that Christopher was supposed to go with them, since she had given them a different teacher's name.

The secretary assured her not to worry. Everything would be OK.

Well, everything was far from OK.

Left alone

On Tuesday, Christopher was left on the playground in the pouring rain with no supervision. Not knowing and not understanding what to do, he tried to find his way home, Smith says.

Thank God for a good Samaritan who stopped Christopher four blocks away from the school. "She saw him crying and called the police," Smith said. "What if it would have been some maniac that stopped him?"

The police officer took Christopher back to Whittier, and that's where Smith found him - not at aftercare in the cafeteria, but in his classroom, soaked, with the officer and a teacher.

It was harrowing enough that Christopher had to go through such an ordeal. But Smith's anguish turned to rage when, in her search for answers the next day, every single adult in charge refused to take responsibility.

"I felt like they had no sympathy for the situation - they blew me off," Smith says. "They wiped their hands of it and said, 'This is on you.' "

See, this is the reason Philly public schools get such a bad rap. It's one thing to have a breakdown in communication. But why compound the problem by blaming the victim?

It's the reason Smith has kept Christopher out of Whittier ever since - she doesn't trust the folks in charge there. For the last two weeks, she's asked to meet with principal Betty Sago, but it wasn't until Sago received my e-mail late last week that she even bothered to return Smith's call.

Sago referred my questions to district spokesman Fernando Gallard, who expressed concern that a first grader was able to leave school property without a parent or a guardian.

"When parents turn over their children [to school officials], they should never be in a situation where they don't know where their children are," Gallard said. "Whatever miscommunication there was, that's no excuse."

Waiting for an apology

Smith knows that Chris, who, for now, is being cared for by her brother while she goes to work, is at a disadvantage every day he's out of school. She's tried to enroll him somewhere else, but all the schools are filled to capacity.

At this point, she'd reluctantly allow Christopher to return to Whittier - but only if she receives an apology from Sago and a promise that the school won't ever drop the ball on her son again.

"I just don't want this to happen to someone else's child and the outcome be different," Smith says. "That would be horrible."


Contact Annette John-Hall at 215-854-4986 or Ajohnhall@phillynews.com.

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