For at least the third time since school began in August, a child walked away from a Fayette County public school, leading to a “massive” search by school and public safety officials.
In the new case, a 9-year-old girl walked away from Garrett Morgan Elementary School on Oct. 11 and was missing for 45 minutes, according to the girl’s family.
“To find her, there was a massive search by our family, friends, school volunteers, school teachers, staff, administrators, Lexington police and other first responders. It was really scary,” said Amy Walls, whose adopted sister, Brenna, walked away from the school.
A few weeks ago a boy who is legally blind and has cognitive damage from brain cancer fell into a drainage ditch adjacent to the Leestown Middle School campus after he walked away from school unaccompanied.
In late August, a kindergarten student walked out of Mary Todd Elementary School then walked the two and a half blocks to his home. School officials checked on him within five minutes when he failed to return from the bathroom, Fayette County Public Schools spokeswoman Lisa Deffendall said at the time. In the Leestown incident, Deffendall said the student left the school building without permission.
In a statement Friday Deffendall said, “Each of these incidents was isolated, separate and distinct and the solution for each is tailored to meet the needs of the student involved.”
In the Garrett Morgan case, Deffendall said, “Prior to the day this occurred there were no incidents of the student running from adults at school. We developed a safety plan and appropriate supports. After the incident we increased support for the student and continue to work with her family to ensure her success at school.”
Walls, 38, said her adopted sister, Brenna, has fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and severe separation anxiety. She said the girl has wandered away from home twice in the past three weeks, and walked out of Garrett Morgan Elementary on Passage Mound Way on Oct. 11.
Walls said school officials said the fourth-grader was surrounded by staff members walking from the office to her classroom when she bolted out of the building, ran across Polo Club Boulevard and into a residential yard where she hid in the bushes.
“The biggest concern we face is her safety,” Walls said. “She gets in fight-or-flight mode and is not able to think rationally. She has darted out into traffic now both on Todds Road near our home where the speed limit is now 55 mph, as well as straight across all lanes of busy Polo Club Boulevard and Todds Road both without looking.”
Amy Walls said she thinks one solution she found could help scores of others in Lexington, too.
Walls is hoping that Lexington’s first responders will resume their participation in a national program in which special needs children, adults with dementia and other vulnerable people wear a small transmitter tracking device so first responders can find them in case they go missing.
“I very much want to advocate for my baby sister as this can and most likely will happen again,” Walls said. “The news ran a story of a middle school student with special needs wandering from the school and even getting injured. I know if we could get some awareness as well as a program started or reinstated, we may be able to save many lives as well as bring loved ones home very quick before they become another statistic.”
She wants the city to participate in a national program called Project Lifesaver, which relies on radio technology and search and rescue teams, according to its website. Citizens enrolled in Project Lifesaver wear a small transmitter on the wrist or ankle that emits an individualized frequency signal.
If a person enrolled in the program goes missing, the caregiver notifies a local Project Lifesaver agency, and a trained emergency team responds to the wanderer’s area.
Winchester firefighter Jim Simpson said that department participates in the program, but fortunately hasn’t had to use it recently.
Lexington Fire Department spokesman Joe Best told the Herald-Leader that the department participated in such a program with local law enforcement until about four years ago when the program ended.
Sheriff Kathy Witt said Friday that her office participated several years ago with Lexington police but they weren’t getting a lot of calls from the public requesting its use and discontinued it. But Witt said she had started to get inquiries from citizens again about the project so she is researching it and expects to soon see a demonstration of updated equipment.
Brenna’s adoptive mother, Suzanne Passovoy, 67, said she thinks school officials “are doing everything possible, now … knocking themselves out” to protect Brenna, including having an aide stay with her at all times and putting other staff on alert to make sure she doesn’t leave the building.
But Passovoy said she wished a better plan had been in place on the day that Brenna ran out of the school building. She said she had warned school officials that Brenna was at high risk to leave.
“Anything could happen in those short minutes to a special needs child like Brenna,” Walls said. Passovoy said she now uses alarms and deadbolts at home to keep Brenna from leaving.