Unbeknownst to his caregivers, a 5-year-old boy was allowed to walk home alone from a Columbus elementary school on Monday.
On Friday, the boy's mother and grandmother still were looking for answers.
Chelsey Roberts and her mother, Laurie Roberts, are grateful the boy ended up safe at a neighbor's house, but they are outraged school employees let him walk away without their permission. The boy turned what should have been a 1.3-mile walk from Fox Elementary School to his Howard Avenue home into a 2.4-mile adventure of at least an hour with stops at Burger King, McDonald's and Ray's Food Mart.
"I'm really upset," Chelsey said. "I'm glad I'm not having to identify a body now, but that easily could have happened. He would have had to cross those busy roads."
The boy would have had to cross four-lane River Road, six-lane Veterans Parkway and two-lane Hamilton Road during afternoon rush-hour traffic.
"He didn't say he was lost," Chelsey said. "I think he was pretty clear about where he was going."
Following a tutoring program at Fox, the mother said, the boy was supposed to get on a bus between 4 and 4:30 p.m. to attend the after-school program at Open Door Community House, where his grandmother, Laurie, picks him up between 5:30 and 6 p.m. But when Laurie arrived at Open Door around 5:45 p.m. Monday, she was told her grandson wasn't there.
Laurie was frantic as she drove 1.1 miles to Fox.
"I didn't even slow down over the speed bumps in the school parking lot," she said.
Fortunately, Fox principal Penny Thornton still was there. After the principal made a few phone calls, Laurie said, Thornton informed her that the boy apparently got in the dismissal line for car-riders and walkers. But the school employees responsible for him shouldn't have been fooled, Laurie said, because he tried that trick the previous week.
"The teacher called me that time," Laurie said, "but not this time."
The boy also didn't have a note permitting him to walk home.
"They should have been paying more attention," Laurie said. "That's not an acceptable thing to happen to a fifth-grader, but it's for sure darn not acceptable for a kindergartner."
While she waited with the principal, Laurie finally received word that her grandson was safe. A text message at 5:34 p.m. from Dave Button, her neighbor across Howard Avenue, announced the welcomed news.
The boy knocked on Button's door around and said he couldn't get into his house because it was locked. Button asked where his grandmother was, and the boy replied only that he had walked home.
"For a kid that little to walk that far by himself," Button said, "I was just kind of amazed."
Sheila Moffett, the restaurant manager of the Burger King at 4312 Veterans Parkway, confirmed to the Ledger-Enquirer that her assistant manager reported some of her staff saw the boy around 5 p.m. Monday.
"They said he walked up to the drive-thru window and asked for food," Moffett said. "By the time she got to him, he was gone. They could see he was in the McDonald's parking lot."
Chelsey said her son received an ice cream from a compassionate employee in the McDonald's at 1436 Manchester Expressway. The McDonald's employee then called police, the mother said, but her son "was gone by the time they came back."
The McDonalds store manager or a spokesman wasn't reached for comment.
Thornton, the Fox principal, also wasn't reached for comment. Valerie Fuller, the Muscogee County School District communications director, said an investigation revealed what went wrong at Fox:
The boy told the first employee he was a car-rider. When the employee went to verify that change on the checklist, the boy walked away and was stopped by another employee. The boy told that employee he was allowed to walk home - and so he was.
"At no point should a teacher take the word of a student about how he or she is transported," Fuller said.
Asked what action the school district has taken in response to this incident, Fuller said the principal has "addressed those concerns with the employees and assigned additional staff for supervision."
Asked whether any employees were fired or suspended in response to this incident, Fuller said, "Not to my knowledge."
Fuller said she isn't aware of any other cases of students walking home without permission in the district.
"While no one is perfect, the expectation is that the dismissal process will ultimately provide safety for all of our children," she said. "One time is one too many."
Chelsey said the district's student services director, Marcus Dubose, told her "disciplinary actions were taken," but he wouldn't tell her what was done.
The school district was closed Tuesday through Thursday due to the winter storm, so Friday was the first day of classes since the incident. Chelsey, however, didn't send her son to school. She said she needed more time for reassurance that this safety lapse wouldn't happen again.