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Reviews begin in student's accident

As the seriously injured kindergartener's family asks for answers, school officials are perplexed as to why he bolted from class into a street.

By THOMAS C. TOBIN
Published April 14, 2005


photo
[Times photo: Kinfay Moroti]
Pinellas school superintendent Clayton Wilcox watches a video from Fairmount Park Elementary School security cameras showing E'Traveon Johnson, 6, as he heads to class after breakfast just before his accident Tuesday.

LARGO - A 6-year-old St. Petersburg boy was fighting for his life late Wednesday as Pinellas school officials struggled to explain why he bolted Tuesday morning from Fairmount Park Elementary, and why no adult saw him.

E'Traveon Johnson, a kindergartener, left through a set of glass doors and was struck by a car minutes later as he tried to cross Fifth Avenue S at 41st Street. He remained in critical condition at All Children's Hospital late Wednesday as doctors used medications to slow swelling in his brain, said Edgar J. Guzman, a Tampa lawyer representing the family.

Doctors initially told the boy's mother, Chantelle Ross, that her son might not live through Tuesday night, Guzman said. "He is still alive, so there is small hope that a miracle may happen."

Twice nearing tears during a news conference at district headquarters, school superintendent Clayton Wilcox said he and his staff were trying to make sense of the accident.

"This has become all too sad for us," he said, referring also to the recent deaths of two students struck on busy roads after exiting school buses. District officials were hard-pressed Wednesday to recall a school year with such a steady parade of horrors.

E'Traveon, he said, was a "model student" with no history of discipline problems. And a preliminary investigation uncovered no lapses in procedure by administrators, teachers or other staff at the St. Petersburg school.

Still, he said, it was too early to tell if the school was to blame.

"We're looking at, is there a way to change the way we do things?" Wilcox said. "We're really at a loss right now."

One thing is certain, he said: "I don't think this system will ever be the same in terms of the way that it deals with security."

He described a chronology in which the boy made his way from his bus, into the school and out an exit in 10 minutes, all while under the indirect supervision of administrators and teachers scanning corridors and common areas to see that children were where they needed to be.

The boy was never directly or closely monitored, the chronology showed.

Playing a series of grainy digital images from the school's 39-camera surveillance system, Wilcox showed how E'Traveon arrived on a school bus that was 10 minutes late, ran to the cafeteria for a quick breakfast, walked down an outdoor corridor toward his classroom and rounded the corner into a portico near the classroom, out of the camera's view.

In the eeriest scene of all, the boy is seen 22 seconds later, darting back into the corridor and leaving the school running through a set of glass doors.

"And there he goes," Wilcox said, narrating the brief presentation. "That's the last that we have in terms of video of E'Traveon."

The door can be opened from the inside but is locked on the outside. It could not be fully locked because fire regulations don't allow it, Wilcox said.

As for the surveillance system, he said, it is not continuously monitored by school officials, unlike similar systems in middle and high schools.

Neither the substitute teacher nor the teaching aide in E'Traveon's classroom remember him entering the room, Wilcox said. Principal Angelean Bing, he said, scanned the corridor and left, having no reason to believe E'Traveon had not gone to class, he said.

Classes had started 8:40 a.m., about five minutes before the boy ran for the exit.

Wilcox said a boy who was briefly in the portico with E'Traveon outside the classroom remembered nothing unusual about that moment.

"I've not, in working with my team, discovered anything that appears to be out of the ordinary - the way that we would do things every single day," Wilcox said. "But we still have some conversations to have. Obviously if we could talk to E'Traveon we would love to. But that's just not a possibility right now."

Said Guzman: "This is something that cannot go unexplained."

The lawyer gave a brief statement at school headquarters after Wilcox's news conference, having been invited by the superintendent. Wilcox helped him hook up his microphone so he could speak with reporters. He also promised to keep Guzman updated as the district's investigation continued.

Guzman said he appreciated Wilcox's candor, but added: "I don't think it's something that is easily accepted. . . . (E'Traveon's mother) placed the child in control of the school and she expects that child to come back home that same day - safe."

He said the family is wondering "what type of procedure and protocol was in place to allow a 6-year-old to get off the bus, to walk to the cafeteria and then to go to his classroom unsupervised."

Guzman said, "Allowing the child to go to his classroom by himself . . . is something that we need to look into."

Wilcox said several schools have students described as "runners," usually disabled children or those with other difficulties "who like to flee the site." He said a school resource officer who rushed to the school when E'Traveon was struck had just retrieved such a student from another school.

Last year across all Pinellas elementary schools, students were disciplined 40 times for "leaving school without permission." The year before the number was 26. The incidence of that infraction is much higher on middle and high school campuses.

Wilcox sought to quell concerns from thousands of parents across a sprawling district that already has been rocked by the deaths of Rebecca McKinney and Brooke Ingoldsby. McKinney, 16, was struck by a pickup on McMullen-Booth Road in Clearwater. Ingoldsby, 9, was struck by an SUV on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street in St. Petersburg.

Both had been let off improperly on busy roads.

Among the changes discussed initially by district officials after Tuesday's accident: placing "panic bars" on exit doors to alert the office when a student is trying to leave and reminding teachers to greet their students at the door of the classroom.

"I know that some might not think this right now, but we take school security very seriously in Pinellas County," Wilcox said. "We have for years. It sometimes amazes me the new ways that young people find to tax our systems."

Something prompted E'Traveon to "go out and do something he'd never done before," Wilcox said. "We're going to review this for a long time to come."

[Last modified April 14, 2005, 06:15:02]


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