NORWAY — No parent is prepared to take the call that leads them to believe their child is missing. But that is exactly what happened to Travis Verrill and Jasmine Reynolds on May 6, when a series of events resulted in their son Tucker, 7, being locked out of Guy E. Rowe School for more than 90 minutes.
The situation, which could have had a tragic outcome, quickly escalated before the first-grader was found right on school grounds. Instead, Tucker’s parents are proud of his resilience and maturity.
The silver lining is that the incident has brought about changes to Rowe’s attendance procedures to make sure it does not happen again.
The Advertiser Democrat met with the Verrills last week to hear their story. Reynolds explained that the morning began totally according to routine.
“I dropped Tucker off at school, at 8:35,” Reynolds said.
“There was a counselor at the bottom of the stairs, saying ‘hi’ to the kids. There was the crossing guard, right on Main Street. I saw him go up the stairs. I saw the cop there. I thought everything was fine until I got a phone call at 10 a.m. saying he wasn’t there.
“There were kids in the [school] yard, still going in … making their way towards the door. There were still teachers in the yard. It seemed pretty normal.”
But within moments of her leaving the school to return home, the whole situation changed.
“I was walking to the school, and the person that was opening the door for the kids was there,” Tucker said, “But when I went up the stairs, the door shut. Someone shut it on me. So I couldn’t go in.”
The door was locked and even though Tucker knocked, no one heard him.
“I just stood there and waited,” Tucker said. “The big kids came out and they told me to around to the door” that their class uses to go in and out of the school. Tucker would end up waiting until after 10 a.m., when those students from a sixth grade class came out for their first recess.
“I received a call at 10:01,” said Verrill, who was working in Mechanic Falls that day. “It was an automated call from Rowe School that said your child, Tucker W. Verrill was marked absent.”
He immediately called Reynolds to ask why Tucker wasn’t in school. She told him that he was in school. Verrill called Rowe right back, explaining to the secretary that he had received an automated message his son was absent, but that his mother said she had dropped him off at the regular time. He was put on hold for six minutes. Then the secretary came back on the line.
“She said ‘no,’” Verrill said. “I asked, ‘no, what?’ And she said, ‘no, he’s not here.’
“I told her I was on my way there, then I started calling people – Jasmine, my mother, my sister who lives near the school, friends who I knew were nearby.”
By the time Verrill arrived at the school, Tucker had been accounted for. From home, Reynolds was on the phone with a staff member when she heard someone say on the other end, “he’s right here.”
According to Tucker, he did as the big kids told him he should – go around to the other door. He said he was able to walk in and continue to his classroom.
“The first person I saw inside was the person in the office,” Tucker said. “I walked by and into my classroom. My teacher said, ‘Tucker, where were you?’ I told her I was locked outside.”
Although it was only a few minutes between the time Verrill received the automated call and the time administrators found Tucker on school grounds, the boy had been left to his own devices for roughly an hour and a half. Possibly, Tucker was the calmest of all during the situation.
After a brief meeting between the principal, Douglas Kilmister, Verrill and Tucker’s grandmother, Verrill, asked to have Tucker’s homework for the rest of the week prepared, and he took his son home.
The delay in locating Tucker was due in part to attendance being taken at 9 a.m., but it is 10 a.m. before automated notifications are sent to parents. To their credit, after the lock-out, school administrators put together a new protocol for monitoring morning attendance. Importantly, students now have instructions on what to do if they are inadvertently stuck outside.
According to Superintendent Rick Colpitts, the following measures are now in place.
1. Duty teachers need to verify that students are all in the building after checking the area one more time before securing the doors.
2. Each morning two staff are assigned to walk around the building at 8:50 a.m., after all students have entered the building. One goes toward the east and one goes around in the opposite direction. They are to check all the doorways and scan for students who may be outside.
1. Kindergarten and Grade 1 and 2 students will continued to use their assigned doors.
2. If their assigned door is closed students are to knock on the door.
3. If no one answers, students should look for a teacher and ask for help.
4. If there is no teacher, students should go to the nearest classroom window in the front of the school and knock.
Verrill and Reynolds appreciated that Kilmister took the time to call them later in the day and explain the new procedure. However, they hope things go further, specifically that the school calls the police in the event a child goes missing for any reason.
“In hindsight when you look back, when I called them at 10:06 and they realized they didn’t have eyes and hands on Tucker, at that point he’d been missing an hour and a half,” said Verrill. “Their next call should have been the police. They were never notified to my knowledge. If someone had taken him, he could have been in Saugus, Mass. before they even knew it. Calling the police should be standard operating procedure.”
“The district shares the parents’ concerns,” wrote Colpitts in an email statement. “We have an obligation to and duty to keep students safe. In fact, it is our top priority. In this instance, despite best intentions, school procedures failed to live up to this standard. We have investigated the matter, addressed the causes and revised plans to prevent this situation from occurring in the future.”
Reynolds was left frustrated that Kilmister’s communication to the Rowe family community was not as forthcoming as it could have been.
“On Sunday night, the school posted a message about what happened,” Reynolds said, “It said the child was located within a few minutes. That’s the story they put out, but that’s not how it happened. I responded to the post [and said that]. The post was just taken down within a half hour.”
“People I’ve talked to said if it was their kid they would have straight up freaked out and had an anxiety attack, or just would’ve walked off,” Verrill said. “We’re fortunate, Tucker was smart enough to just sit down. But it can be traumatic for a kid to be locked out like that.”