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Boy, 6, runs from school, is hit by car

A kindergartener eats breakfast at Fairmount Park Elementary, heads to class, then for reasons unknown leaves and tries to cross a busy street.

By ALEX LEARY, THOMAS C. TOBIN and CURTIS KRUEGER
Published April 13, 2005


photoE'traveon Johnson is in critical condition at All Children's Hospital. His mother is angry.

photo

ST. PETERSBURG - The day began with a rush. E'traveon Johnson's bus arrived 10 minutes late at Fairmount Park Elementary. The kindergartener hurried through breakfast in the cafeteria, then headed to class after the bell had rung.

Suddenly and inexplicably, E'traveon changed direction. He ran from school, officials said, and onto Fifth Avenue S.

Halfway across, he was hit by an Oldsmobile.

"There's no words to describe how I feel right now," Chantelle Ross said from All Children's Hospital, where her only child was in critical condition late Tuesday with brain, spine, neck, leg and internal injuries.

"How could this happen? I don't understand how a 6-year-old could get by all those adults," she said. "Where was everybody? It's just negligence."

Tuesday's accident was another setback for the Pinellas County School District, still reeling from two student deaths earlier this school year. The district recently rolled out its "Safety First" campaign, designed to cut down on accidents as children travel to and from school.

The biggest questions in Tuesday's accident were why E'traveon Johnson left the school campus, and why no one stopped him.

"We don't know what prompted him to want to be leaving campus, especially running away," school district spokesman Ron Stone said.

Responding to the mother's angry words, Stone said, "We're all asking the question why and how."

Officials at Fairmount Park Elementary did not return calls Tuesday but district superintendent Clayton M. Wilcox said a close examination of what happened is under way and will continue this morning when he visits the school.

"Right now, our heart just goes out to the family," he said.

The boy may have entered the classroom for a few moments then left out a side door, Wilcox said.

"At that time of day, we're very prepared for taking kids in," Wilcox said. "We just don't anticipate someone is going to go running out, particularly out of a side or back door."

Ross, 25 and a single mother, has retained a lawyer but said it was too early to discuss legal action. She said her focus is on praying for her son's life.

"At this point," said attorney Edgar J. Guzman, a friend of the family, "we just want answers."

* * *

The morning began routinely.

Ross said she walked her boy to the bus stop, giving him a kiss on the cheek and telling him, like always, "Have a wonderful day."

E'traveon asked her not to forget to buy Oreos so he could have a snack when he got home.

"He's a happy child," Ross said. "Everything was fine."

She had no idea why her boy would have left the school. He was in good spirits, was well-liked and did not skip class, she said.

Stone, the district spokesman, was not sure why the child's bus was late Tuesday.

It was also unclear whether any adult was supervising him after E'traveon ate breakfast. Typically, teachers and administrators help children along, but class had begun five minutes before E'traveon finished breakfast. That could mean no one was around, Stone said.

Moments later, the kindergartener was on the street.

Witnesses told police he looked both ways before running across Fifth Avenue S.

To his left he probably saw a large fuel truck headed east on the busy road. After looking right, E'traveon may have determined the truck was going slow enough to not pose a threat, officer Mike Jockers said.

But an Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme driven by 37-year-old Tony Young was passing the truck, out of the child's field of vision.

Young, who was on his way to work with the city's sanitation department, would not have seen the boy until the last minute, Jockers said.

Upon impact, E'traveon's head struck the hood and he was carried a short distance. When the car stopped he was hurled to the pavement, police said.

No charges were brought against Young, who was not exceeding the 35 mph speed limit, police said. He appeared calm but stunned at the scene, waiting with family at the side of the road while officers tested the brakes.

Juli Nowell watched the scene unfold from her rear-view mirror.

She had just dropped her 3-year-old son at the Fairmount Park preschool when she noticed a young boy walking along the street. He was wearing a blue shirt and khaki pants, the school uniform, and a backpack.

"I remember thinking to myself ... why isn't he going to school over here?" She turned north on 41st, passing the boy carefully herself. As she approached Fifth Avenue S, she remembers thinking, "I hope this guy isn't going to cross the road here."

Nowell turned left and headed west on Fifth Avenue S. She heard squealing tires. Looking in her rearview mirror, she saw a blue car braking and swerving.

"Oh my gosh, I think he just got hit," she thought.

She maneuvered her car around and rushed to help the boy. She called 911 on her cell phone as the other driver knelt over the boy.

The driver, she said, "Kind of stood up in awe, like "Oh my gosh."'

Nowell kneeled down to the boy and took his pulse. It was faint.

"He was just lifeless," she said. He was just lying there, blood coming out of his mouth."

Nowell and police think the boy misjudged traffic. But she was surprised when told the child had been leaving school.

"There's supposed to be teachers there," she said. "I want to know why he wasn't asked, "Where are you going?' That's a flaw in the system and I don't think that should be allowed."

Under district policy, all students enrolled in a school are "subject to the control of that school" beginning when they board a school bus or arrive at the school for class or an activity. Schools take responsibility for students beginning 30 minutes before the official start time and ending 30 minutes after dismissal, the policy states.

The district has no policy detailing when or how students are to be escorted while moving around a campus, said Mike Bessette, an area superintendent who oversees Fairmount Park.

Those procedures are set by individual schools and may depend on how they are laid out, Bessette said. The district has more than 140 schools with different architectural styles and configurations.

Tuesday's accident is sure to add to the already tough questioning of school safety in Pinellas. The recently launched safety campaign was a response to the deaths of Rebecca McKinney and Brooke Ingoldsby.

McKinney, a 16-year-old sophomore at Clearwater High, was killed in October after a school bus dropped her off at a stop that violated a district directive. Ingoldsby, an 8-year-old third-grader at James B. Sanderlin Elementary in St. Petersburg, was killed in February after a bus dropped her off on the wrong side of the street.

Both girls were struck crossing busy roads - just like E'traveon.

* * *

Depicted by family as bright and cheerful, E'traveon enjoys dancing even without music. He likes vanilla ice cream and poundcake. "He's a joyful little boy," said his great-grandmother, Rosella Ross.

As the night wore on, his mother was left with deep uncertainly about her son.

If there was any comfort, she said, it was that her boy was at All Children's Hospital. Born 29 weeks into the pregnancy, he was cared for at the hospital for three months.

"He had strong will to live then," his mother said, "and I pray he has the same now."

--Alex Leary can be reached at 727 893-8472 or leary@sptimes.com

[Last modified April 13, 2005, 06:46:09]


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