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Boy's long walk home changes Washington County Public School policy

August 20, 2011|By JULIE E. GREENE | julieg@herald-mail.com
  • Travis Lowe, a first-grader, walked approximately 2.5 miles to his home when he got separated from his class during recess on the last day of the school year.
Travis Lowe, a first-grader, walked approximately 2.5 miles to his home when he got separated from his class during recess on the last day of the school year.

A first-grader walked approximately 2.5 miles to his home when he got separated from his class during recess on the last day of the school year, prompting Washington County Public Schools officials to strive to "add consistency" to the procedures its schools have when a student goes missing during the school day.

Barb Lowe, the child's mother, in July posted a petition online at Change.org, calling on the school system to implement a missing-child procedure and include it in the 2011-2012 handbook for students and parents.

Lowe said she removed the petition Aug. 10 and mailed copies of it to Schools Superintendent Clayton Wilcox and Board of Education members. The petition had 64 online signatures and another 51 hand-written signatures gathered from family, friends, neighbors and parishioners at church, she said.

Lowe said she discovered her youngest son, Travis, then 6, had gone missing from Pangborn Elementary School in Hagerstown's East End when he showed up outside the family's Redbud Lane home around lunchtime on the last day of the school year. It took Travis about 54 minutes to walk home, based on video security footage showing him heading off school grounds at 11:15 a.m. and the 12:09 p.m. time he arrived home, provided by his mother.

Lowe said she drove her son back to Pangborn to find out what had happened. When she got there, she found school personnel looking for him.

"For the first 40 minutes, they didn't even know he was missing," Barb Lowe said.

Lowe said she determined it was 40 minutes from watching video security footage she obtained from the school system and talking to a teacher and school principal.

Asked to confirm that it took 40 minutes for school officials to notice the boy was gone, school system spokesman Richard Wright said he couldn't discuss anything written in the investigation report.

In an email to The Herald-Mail, Wright wrote, "Regarding the exact timing and other aspects of the situation at Pangborn, we don't have any further public comments. WCPS staff members work tirelessly to keep children safe when they are under our care, and we are actively working to adopt a stricter protocol to prohibit situations like this from happening in the future."

Wright said the school system doesn't have a written policy regarding children who are determined to be missing during the school day.

"Each school prepares for these types of situations based on the needs of their school and the community in which the school operates," Wright said.

Some principals might have something in writing, but Pangborn didn't have a written policy or process in place nor was there a mandate for such a process to be in writing, Wright said.

The bottom line, Wright said, is that everyone begins looking for the student and doesn't rest until the student is found, he said.

Central Office officials work with guidelines for keeping children safe in school, on the playground during recess and on field trips, Wright said.

"Going forward, the school system is seeking to add consistency to the process," recognizing each school has its own protocol to complement the systemwide process when a child is missing, Wright said.

A new systemwide protocol was being reviewed internally and will be ready for the start of the school year on Wednesday, Wright said. In addition to being reviewed by principals, senior leadership and Wilcox, the protocol will be available for school board members to review, but it does not require school board approval, Wright said.

Parents can learn about the protocol from their child's school, he said. There were no plans to distribute the protocol to parents, Wright said.


Starting fast

Wilcox said he talked to principals and supervisors about the new protocol during a meeting Aug. 15. He said he told them he expects them to share the protocol with their faculties and staffs, and stressed the importance of knowing where every student is at every moment.

Knowing the whereabouts of every student might vary in difficulty at the elementary, middle and high school levels, but that's not an excuse to not have that information, Wilcox said.

Wilcox said principals and supervisors have been told that school staff members are to notify police and parents of a missing student no more than six minutes after the student's absence is discovered.

The protocol also lists the time frame within which staff members are to question a missing student's classmates, conduct a student count, expand the search area, review camera recordings and how often they are to call for the missing student over the public address system, according to a copy of the protocol or "guidelines" provided to The Herald-Mail last week.

Wilcox asked that details of the protocol not be published for security reasons.

Even with the new guidelines, Wilcox said, nothing supplants good judgment.


Heading home

Lowe made the video security footage she obtained from the school system available to The Herald-Mail and pointed out her child. It would be difficult to identify an individual child in the footage, but Travis can be seen wandering around, apparently looking for someone or something shortly after recess began.

According to Lowe, her son and the video, Travis and the rest of his class went onto the playground during recess June 2 at 11:03 a.m.

Two minutes later, a group of students is escorted away from a playground behind the basketball court to a playing field on the north side of the school, out of camera range. Lowe said the first-graders were moved to another play area when the kindergartners came out to play.

She points to a teacher, who is seen escorting a child back into the school — Lowe says to use the restroom — while the first-graders are escorted around to the other play area.

Three other adults were visible on the basketball court in the video. One appeared to go back into the school and the other two left the area with the first-graders.

A few minutes later, a child is seen wandering around the basketball court as if searching for something. Then, he approaches the school doors through which he earlier exited to go to recess.

Travis said that when he found those doors were locked, he looked around again for his classmates and couldn't find them.

"Then I went down and around the side of the building," he said. "I was running."

A security camera at the front of the school shows Travis running past the walkway to the front doors, and another camera shows him continuing to run north, heading away from the school.

Travis' walk home was mostly along Jefferson Boulevard, which is a two-lane state highway. He said he clung to the concrete railing along the bridge over Antietam Creek, which has a shoulder that appears to narrow to less than 2 feet wide in places.

Asked what he was thinking when he tried the school doors off the playground and found them locked, Travis said he thought he would look for his class again.

When he couldn't find them, he thought to go home, he said.

"I'm only 6," he said.

Barb Lowe said when she asked her son why he didn't try the school's front doors, he shrugged his shoulders.

Wright said the front entrance to Pangborn is a vestibule with the outer doors unlocked and the inner doors locked. Had Travis entered the vestibule, someone in the front office would have seen him through the windows.

"(It'd) be hard to miss seeing someone standing at the door," Wright said.

Lowe's petition states no one from the school called Travis' parents or police when he was missing.

Wright said he couldn't say whether anyone called the police or parents because that is part of the investigative report.

Alan Crawford, deputy director of operations for the Washington County Communications Center or 911 center, said a center official checked the 911 call log from 11 a.m. to a little after noon on June 2 and found no 911 calls about a missing Pangborn Elementary School student.

Hagerstown Police Chief Arthur Smith said Aug. 11 that he could not find any reference to a call to the police department about the matter.

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