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After school, he slipped away

He's 5. One day, rather than take his bus to the YMCA, he decides to go home. No one stops him.

Published April 19, 2005

[Times photo: Dirk Shadd]
Summer Oliver, left, and Charles Oliver, on their porch Monday, say the school should never have let their son Patrick Oliver, 5, walk home alone.

ST. PETERSBURG - Days before a 6-year-old boy was hit by a car as he ran from Fairmount Park Elementary School, another child left a different elementary school and walked home - 2 miles.

In neither case did school officials know the children had slipped away.

Patrick Oliver, 5, left Lakewood Elementary at dismissal on April 4. Instead of boarding a bus to an afterschool program, he headed north on the same route his dad uses to take him to school.

He crossed more than 26 streets and four busy intersections. He walked past Don's Irish Pub and Fourth Street Adult Books and Video.

Patrick's mother, Summer Oliver, was on the porch of the family's home around 3:45 p.m. when her son trudged up the front steps.

"My mouth dropped when I saw him," Oliver said. "I asked him, "How did you get here?' He said, "I walked."'

Within days, Patrick was reassigned to the school where his siblings attend. But his long walk has angered his parents and underscored concerns about transportation problems in Pinellas schools.

Earlier this year, two children were killed after being dropped off by school buses. E'Traveon Johnson, a kindergartener at Fairmount Park Elementary, remains in critical condition after he ran from his school and was hit by a car on April 12.

In Patrick's case, he left Lakewood Elementary shortly before 3 p.m. on April 4 and made it home about 50 minutes later. His mother called the school but got no answer. When she called Harbordale YMCA, where Patrick is a member of Y-Achievers, an afterschool program, she was told children are assumed absent when they fail to get on the shuttle that picks them up at their school.

By the time she called the school district's administration building, it was after 4:30. Everyone had left for the day.

If Patrick had not shown up at home, Oliver said, she would not have known he had not made it to the Y until after 5:30, when her husband, Charles, was scheduled to pick him up.

Even now, the couple are unsure why Patrick decided to walk home. When questioned, he said he was tired of waiting for the bus that would take him to the afterschool program.

In any case, Oliver said, the school should have stopped him.

"Anything could have happened to him along the way with all the drug holes he had to pass," she said. "It was only by divine intervention that nothing happened to him and he got home safely."

The next day, Charles Oliver met with school officials. They suggested it was Patrick's fault, Summer Oliver said. Patrick went to work with his father that day and the next because the couple were uncomfortable returning him to Lakewood.

Meanwhile, area superintendent Barbara Hires got in touch with Summer Oliver. Oliver told Hires that Patrick had been on a waiting list for Bear Creek Elementary since August.

Bear Creek Elementary, at 350 61st St. S., is farther from the Olivers than Lakewood Elementary, but Patrick's parents wanted their children there because they believe it is a better school.

Hires got Patrick transferred the next day.

Calls for comment from Lakewood Elementary officials were not returned Monday.

Deputy superintendent Nancy Zambito, who was not aware of Patrick's situation, called Hires for an explanation.

"What happened was the child ... didn't wait for his bus," Zambito said.

Children who ride the bus home are separated from children who ride a bus to the YMCA, she said. Children who walk home are dismissed separately.

"He walked off with the walkers," Zambito said.

She acknowledged that the school will have to work on "processes" for children who go to afterschool care, even though the assistant principal and seven other teachers are normally on duty during dismissal.

"Because of our traffic and because of our population, normal precautions that work in other places aren't enough," she said. "We do a great job at the beginning of the year (identifying children). At the end of the year, we figure all the kids sort of know. But them knowing is not the whole point."

While the Olivers are glad Patrick is at Bear Creek with his siblings, they suspect the move was done to appease them.

Zambito says that's not what happened.

"It got to Dr. (Clayton) Wilcox," Zambito said, referring to the district superintendent. "He said, "Put that boy with his sisters."'

The family is still upset that Patrick was able to slip away unnoticed from his school.

"When I heard about that other little boy, my heart just sank," Summer Oliver said.

She said she probably would not have brought Patrick's mishap to anyone's attention had the Fairmount Park child not been hit.

"It scared me a lot."

[Last modified April 24, 2005, 10:50:45]

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