I-TEAM: How did a student go missing from school on post?
FORT GORDON, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) – When you drop your kids off at school, you expect their teachers to keep an eye on them.
That’s why one mom wants to know how her seventh grader was able to walk out of the building, and no one noticed he was gone until she was in the car line to pick him up.
When our I-TEAM started digging, we discovered this might not be the first time this has happened or the only ball that’s been dropped in this case.
“When they looked into the camera feed…at 1:53, he walked out of the school,” said Elaine. “Nobody noticed. Nobody knew he was missing, and nobody looked for him when his name keep being called on the P.A.”
May 1, as time slowly ticked on, Elaine was painfully aware of every passing minute.
“It was cold. It was supposed to be 41 degrees. He’s also visually impaired, so once it got dark, it was even more concerning that he would even be able to find his way back home,” Elaine told the I-TEAM.
Elaine asked us to just use her first name. She also wanted us to just use her son’s first name. Darian was eventually found almost 12 hours after he first went missing.
He was hiding in a cabinet in an abandoned home on Fort Gordon. We’ll get to that in a minute. First, Elaine wants to talk about Freedom Park School.
“It’s very frustrating that no one’s doing anything,” she said, tearfully.
Even though the school sits on a military installation, the Department of Defense doesn’t run Freedom Park. It’s actually part of the Richmond County School System.
When Elaine first posted to Facebook about Darain missing, she never expected other parents would reach out. Danielle is one of those parents. She also asked us to just use her first name.
“My son also walked out of the school, so I was just thinking, ‘Oh, gosh, here we go again, like another child walking out of the school’,” she said.
Other parents, whom we’re not identifying out of fear of retaliation said the same. And that’s not all. They said their kids walked out because teachers or staff bullied them.
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Meredith Anderson: “Did it surprise you?”
Danielle: “No, honestly, like it did not.”
That’s the same reason Elaine says Darian left. He told her his teacher was giving him a hard time in front of everyone for failing a test.
“Why didn’t you pull my child from the class and ask to speak to him outside? Or why didn’t you send my child to the principal’s office to be handled there? Why did you have to out him in front of everybody,” Elaine questions.
The whole thing was so upsetting that Darian’s doctor on post wrote a note suggesting he be kept at home “until the teacher is removed from the school.”
“The teacher is still at the school. We asked for a formal investigation. They said that they would handle it,” said Elaine.
Richmond County schools told the I-TEAM there were two independent investigations about all of this but didn’t give an outcome. The I-TEAM sent an open records request for the teacher’s personnel file. We didn’t see anything about this incident in it so we asked if anything had been added to include this.
We were told the Richmond County School System does not “release confidential employment records”, but after we quoted Georgia’s Public Record Law, we did get some answers.
We’re told the teacher has received “no disciplinary action” for this or anything else in her career with Richmond County schools. She’s still an employee and has until June 15 to decide on her contract for the next school year.
“They said that we hope you will trust us to do the right thing and to handle the discipline and ensure that it will be done,” said Elaine.
Meredith: “Do you trust them?”
Elaine: “No. I do not.”
Still, Elaine and her husband recently met with Assistant Principal Wendy May and Dr. Donald Mason, assistant superintendent for Richmond County schools, and recorded the conversation. They said nothing about discipline, but they told them there’s a new plan to watch the kids after this.
“I think that they have come up with a new way to supervise,” said Mason.
Wendy May added, “Yes, we have, and on all grade levels, and also, we’ve done it school-wide, and so we’ve established that there’s certain people, certain places, and that, um, they know where they need to go and every person they’re supposed to be with every step of the way.”
For Danielle, it’s way too late. She’s already pulled her kids out of Freedom Park.
“Before we moved here, they loved going to school, loved going to school. But every morning after some time being there, they would tell me, ‘Mom, I don’t want to go to school’,” she said.
Meanwhile, abandoned homes on post continue to be an issue. For years, the I-TEAM has exposed hazards in homes Balfour Beatty, the Army’s private contractor, deemed liveable. We’ve shown you problems with some that made families sick.
But Elaine took snap-shots of homes where families can’t live but are easily accessible.
“The vacant houses are hazardous. They have mold. There’s one behind me that’s infested with cockroaches. There’s a house next to me that has broken glass,” said Elaine.
Empty homes on a military installation might be nothing new, but after Darian was found hiding in one, Elaine says the Garrison Commander promised her the empty ones would be secure.
Weeks later, they weren’t, so she sent pictures, and according to this email dated May 10, Colonel Evans said he was disappointed and that he expected them to be secured. He writes, “I received no indication that they would not complete the task.”
Weeks later, Elaine says the homes are still not secure, and she sent the I-TEAM quite a few pictures. Elaine says she’s no longer doing this just for Darain – she’s doing it for the other moms who reached out when he was missing.
“During the time, I didn’t want to be flooded with stuff. But I was like, you know what? I’m not doing that. I’m putting it all out there,” she said.
And Danielle is speaking for the other moms who wanted to be here to interview but backed out at the last minute because they were afraid of the ripple effect it could have on their kids or military spouse.
“I just don’t want it to happen to another family,” she said.
The public affairs chief at the Cyber Center for Excellence at Fort Gordon tells the I-TEAM she can confirm Balfour Beatty has taken measures to secure those homes.
She also says those not scheduled for repair any time soon will be boarded up.
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