Girl With Down Syndrome Wandered Away From School and It Happens More Than You May Realize

Sometimes the news isn’t as straightforward as it’s made to seem. Ellen Stumbo, The Mighty’s parenting editor, explains what to keep in mind if you see this topic or similar stories in your newsfeed. This is The Mighty Takeaway.

On Monday, a 7-year-old girl with Down syndrome wandered away from her Chicago school. She walked into Anton Montgomery’s home, who took her to the elementary school close to his home, suspecting it was where she eloped from. Upon their arrival, the school staff seemed to be thankful for her return, yet, according to an interview Montgomery did with WGN9, the school reacted as if it were no “big deal.”

Montgomery is a parent, and the school’s reaction was upsetting to him. He was concerned about what could have happened to the child because of the potential dangers of being lost in the city, but the school seemed to show no concern. Montgomery then called police in an effort to hold the school accountable.

Perla Arzola, the child’s mother, said it was scary to find what had happened to her daughter while under the school’s supervision, but even more so to find out it had happened before and she had never been notified.

A few days after this incident, on Wednesday, a 4-year-old boy on the autism spectrum wandered from his Chicago preschool and was found by a stranger when he reached a busy road several blocks from his school.

I work as the parenting editor here at The Mighty and I’m the mother of a child with Down syndrome. When I heard about this story, I knew this was not an isolated incident. I have countless friends whose children with Down syndrome or autism have wandered away from school when they were supposed to be supervised. Some parents have been called immediately, once school staff discovered the child was missing, some called as soon as the child was found, while others have not found out until days after the incident.

“Wandering” or “eloping” is a tendency some of our kids have to “go.” Since my daughter was able to walk, she was a wanderer. My husband and I had to keep close supervision at all times or she would take off. As careful as we have been, she has still gotten away. Last time she did it, I ended up calling 911 and buying her a GPS tracking device to keep her safe.

When she began school, I was terrified she would wander off campus, since, at this point, I knew she was at risk and I have friends whose children have eloped while at school.

Before school began, we visited the school and checked all exit doors. She was so small she did not have the strength to open any door independently, which I was grateful for. However, her school playground was not fenced in and it led to a somewhat busy road. I insisted she wear a bright orange vest during recess and made sure it was included in her IEP. Teachers discouraged me from the vest, saying she would stick out, and assured me they would keep a close eye on her. I didn’t care, I already knew of too many kids wandering off from school, some even involved in fatal accidents. As I told the school, “if she takes off, I want every single child and adult in that playground to see her and know exactly where she is at all times.”

That first week of school, I parked in full view of the playground, twice a day, during recess. Once, she bolted, and I caught her before another adult at the playground noticed. After that incident, they took me seriously and she had a one-on-one adult with her during recess.

While writing this article, I asked my friends on my personal Facebook page how many have had their kids go missing while at school and if school notified them immediately. In just a day, over 22 people shared their stories.

My friend Stephanie Lynn said, “I’ve always been notified after, I have a meeting tomorrow to address this, because the last time it happened he was probably gone a good half hour or so, he completely left school grounds, crossed roads, and walked to the hospital.”

Sometimes, wandering can result in a school being proactive.”My son who has Down syndrome and autism, wandered away from the crowded playground at recess when he was in second grade,” my friend Dayna Chandler said. She added:

He was found 15 or 20 minutes later on a school bus that was parked behind the school. I wasn’t called until after he was located. I had previously expressed my concern for his safety due to the school being on a busy road and there being a retaining pond on the property. After this incident, I requested that the playground be fenced in and it was done immediately.

Sometimes, these scenarios are just plain terrifying. My friends, John and Lisa McCloskey got a phone call from staff telling them they were unable to locate their daughter, who was participating in a school summer program at the local high school. Lisa said:

I don’t know how much time had passed before my husband was contacted. I would imagine it was when it was known that my daughter was not in the building. John called me and all I heard from him was, ‘Grace is missing’ everything else he said was muffled. Sheer terror! It’s frightening how many scenarios went through my mind at that moment. She was found about an hour after my husband was called. My neighbor found her close to a busy street with two senior citizen ladies trying to understand where my daughter came from.

These are just several stories from parents I know in the community. There are so many other stories like these.

So what can we do to prevent this from happening?

  • Know the layout of the school. Be sure to pay attention to nearby busy roads, ponds, etc.
  • If your child is a wanderer, make a plan with the school and make sure it is included in their IEP. This may require one-on-one supervision during recess or a seating arrangement that places the child away from exit doors.
  • Be specific about action steps in case your child does go missing. This is also where you would specify that you want to be informed immediately if your child goes missing.
  • Get a GPS tracking device, and give access to the school in case of an emergency. There are also some Bluetooth options, like the Joey Tag, which schools can purchase and have available for children who have a tendency to wander.

Ultimately, schools need to be held responsible for what happens to children under their care. Wandering situations should be rare and far between, not common.

Getty image by DenKuvaiev

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