Juneau School District officials have launched an investigation into an after-school care program at Gastineau Elementary School after two 5-year-olds went missing for three hours without anyone realizing it last week.
The boys, both in kindergarten, had accidently taken the after-school activity bus home, without permission slips, and were dropped off at a bus stop near their houses at 3:45 p.m., instead of being picked up at the school by their parents at 5 p.m., a preliminary investigative report from the school and obtained by the Empire said.
Their absence was not noted until the parents arrived at the school, the report indicated, even though three children were marked absent during snack time from 3:30-3:45 p.m.
“Of the three children, one child (was) picked up at 3:10 by parent; the other two boys are unaccounted for,” the report read.
One of the mothers, who declined to give her name, said in an interview last Thursday — the same day her son was missing — that she arrived at the school at 5 p.m. to pick him up from the Recreation, Arts, Learning, and Leadership for Youth, or RALLY program. He wasn’t there.
She asked one of the RALLY supervisors where he was.
“We haven’t seen him,” the mother recalled the teacher telling her.
Another mother, Ursula Sfraga, arrived about five minutes later, and knew by looking at her friend’s face that something was wrong.
“Ursula, they’re gone. They’re not here. They’re both missing,” Sfraga remembers the other mom telling her. Both their kids attended preschool together last year.
Sfraga ran outside to tell her husband, who was waiting in their vehicle, and all three of them searched the school grounds trying to find their children.
“I was hysterical, of course,” Sfraga said in an interview Wednesday. “I ran outside, then back inside and asked teacher when she last saw him,” she said.
The teacher told her she didn’t know and she thought she sent them to another activity group, Sfraga said.
While Sfraga and her husband and staff continued searching inside and outside of the school, a RALLY staffer suggested maybe they both accidentally took the activities bus, or after-school bus, home.
The other mother jumped in her car, raced home to see if her child was indeed at home, though it was locked, checking out possible bus stops on the way. She found Sfraga’s son, shivering on the front porch of his house, but not her own child. She returned Sfraga’s son to the school to his parents, and drove back to continue searching for her son. Eventually, he was found in the family’s doghouse with their dog in their backyard in the rain with no coat on.
The mother said the incident was traumatic for her son and that, “he was so scared he hid under the dining room table. He didn’t want to talk about it, it (took) forever to coax him out.”
Sfraga said the experience also left her usually talkative son mute and unable to look at any one for about an hour. When he finally spoke, he told his parents the bus dropped him off somewhere that looked familiar and he found his way home. It was locked, he began to cry and got scared, so he ate a snack and tried walking back to school. But by then, it was getting dark, and it was still raining and he thought he couldn’t make it. So he turned around once more, walked home, and sat on the front porch until the other mother found him.
“It was such an absolute nightmare,” Sfraga said. “I couldn’t believe it. It was just a horrible experience.”
The other mother echoed her sentiment, and said by phone, “This is a 5-year old we’re talking about, with no skills … He’s out there in the world all by himself, and the school doesn’t even know he’s gone.”
The children went unaccounted for about 2 hours and 45 minutes, but the unnamed mother said it felt like forever.
“It wasn’t just the time between when I found out he was gone — it was the fact that he had been missing for hours before I found out he was gone,” she said the same night as the incident.
JSD Communications Manager Kristin Bartlett said in an interview Wednesday that Wayne Hixson, the district supervisor of the RALLY program, which is under JSD’s administrative services branch, has personally apologized to the families, which the unnamed mother said she greatly appreciated.
“On behalf of the Juneau School District, I want to say how truly sorry we are for the distress this has caused for the students and families involved in this situation,” Bartlett added in an email Wednesday.
Hixson declined to be interviewed.
The investigation is still ongoing, but Bartlett said they have ruled out understaffing of the program as a contributing factor in the case.
Gastineau Elementary currently has one full-time certified staff member and one hourly aide on site for the 30 kids in the program each day, making the child-to-supervisor ratio 15:1. Enrollment is capped by Alaska law at 30 students per certified supervisor, Bartlett said.
Steps have already been taken to address what happened, Bartlett said, and an additional training day for all RALLY staff in the district on attendance policy and procedure was held on Monday. Hixson also addressed the matter at a site council meeting before parents and educators at the school on Monday.
Staff will be now required to take attendance more often throughout the entirety of the program, and attendance will have to recorded in writing, Bartlett said.
The boys may have been unaccounted for last Thursday during “transition time” from one room or group to another for activities, Bartlett said, so staff has been advised to take attendance before and after each transition.
“Student safety and security is absolutely our number one priority,” Bartlett said. “We’re taking steps to make sure this never happens again.”
One RALLY program operates out of each of the six elementary schools in the school district. They were established in the 1980s for latchkey kids, and the program is licensed by the state.
Both mothers described that day as a nightmare.
“When your child’s gone, it’s just like a bottomless pit and the world, you’re just falling into it,” the unnamed mother said last Thursday. “I still feel sick.”
She said she was yanking her son out of the program for the time being, and will probably hire a nanny to take care of him after school until the RALLY program regains her trust.
Sfraga says she has no choice but to leave her son in the program since both she and her husband work full-time jobs.
Both women said on Wednesday they are now taking a proactive approach in improving safety at the school and program. On Monday, they submitted a proposal on bus safety to parents of the school at an already-scheduled parent meeting. They are also organizing a safety committee, which the principal has expressed interest in, they said.
“It’s been very hellacious, the whole experience, but we’re trying to be positive,” Sfraga said. “It’s really hard to be, but obviously we don’t want this to happen to another child.”
• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.