It all begins with safety

It all begins with safety
After receiving an accredited with conditions status for the 2018- 2019 school year, T.C. Williams High School and Jefferson-Houston were both fully accredited for the 2019-2020 school year. (File Photo)

Anyone who has loved a child has to be profoundly shaken by the story about an autistic 4-year-old little girl who somehow wandered out of Jefferson-Houston PreK-8 IB school last month and was found by a bus driver a half mile away.

The incident, which happened on March 19, came to the public’s attention only after D.C. News Now broke the story on April 5.

Alexandria City Public Schools did not respond to D.C. News Now’s requests for comment, nor did ACPS issue a public statement about the incident until four days after the story broke in the media. On April 9, Superintendent Melanie Kay-Wyatt, Ed.D., said in a letter to Jefferson-Houston parents that “several employees, including administrative staff, have been placed on administrative leave this week.”

In our page 1 story, “ACPS admins placed on leave,” for which ACPS also declined to comment, a parent said a lack of resources for special education students at Jefferson-Houston is a long-standing problem that ACPS has not addressed over a number of years.

“There are not enough resources to make sure that these kids are taught in the way that they need to be taught, with the resources they need to be safe,” the parent, who requested anonymity to talk candidly for this story, said in the story.

There are multiple takeaways from this situation.

The first is, quite obviously, that this simply can’t happen – ever. And yet it did.

The second is a series of questions.

• Why did it take Kay-Wyatt three weeks to issue the April 9 letter to parents?

• Did it really take her that long to make the decision that top leadership at Jefferson-Houston should be placed on administrative leave and an investigation be launched?

• Was it business-as-usual for three full weeks before this decision was announced?

• Were the superintendent and School Board even aware of the incident in real time?

• Would anyone have been held accountable at all if D.C. News Now hadn’t broken the story on April 5?

The third is empathy.

It’s really difficult to run a school, particularly public schools that are required to accommodate students at all ability levels with a range of disabilities. Nothing can excuse what happened to little Riley and her frantic mother on March 19, and everyone involved is fortunate that Riley was found, unharmed. But this situation was an accident, not a malicious act on anyone’s part.

The fourth is puzzlement.

If, as the Jefferson-Houston parent told the Times, understaffing and inadequate resources for special needs children have been long-standing problems at that school, it’s difficult to understand how this wouldn’t have been addressed at some point in the last seven years.

What Kay-Wyatt, her team and the Alexandria School Board – who Kay-Wyatt reports to – must figure out is what steps are necessary to ensure that this never happens again.

Once again, ACPS reacted by circling the wagons when something potentially tragic happened in a school, rather than being forthcoming from the start. Incidents like this eventually tend to come to light – and the optics of appearing to cover them up make everyone look worse in the end.