Advocate stock photo by Danny Fulgencio

A special needs student wandered away from the Stults Road Elementary playground Tuesday, district officials confirm.

Lake Highlands resident Jason Caswell was heading to his afternoon golf game at about 12:30 Tuesday when something caught his attention.

In between houses on Hanford Drive, a small child was wandering, alone, peeking into yards and looking a little lost, Caswell explains.

“He looked about 5 or 6 years old. I sat in the car and watched for a minute, and then I went over and said, ‘hey, buddy, where are your parents?'”

Location, Google Maps, click to enlarge

The boy didn’t respond. Caswell says he would later realize the child had special needs. Understanding the child was alone and confused, Caswell first called 911 and promptly hailed a couple of women who were in the yard across the street. One of the women stayed with him and the boy as they walked up and down the street, waiting for police. Eventually, she remembered that there was school a couple of blocks away, Caswell says, and he thought, “Oh yes,” and called Stults Road Elementary School and asked if they were missing a special needs student. By this point, he says, the child was exhibiting signs of stress, such as hitting himself, Caswell says.

“They did not seem to know anything about it. I was put on hold for a minute before the woman who answered came back and said ‘we are’ and asked for my location. I called back again a few minutes later to see if they were coming, because she had just sort of hung up … probably in panic at this point.”

The school principal Amber Leblond and another woman arrived within about 15 minutes. Caswell asked to see their IDs before handing the child over, he says.

“I have a 1 and a half year old myself,” Caswell says. He was frustrated not only that this could happen but also that by this time, some 40 minutes past the initial call, Dallas police had not even shown up.

(The Advocate has reached out to the DPD to find out when calls about the child came in from both the school and Caswell, and we will update this post when we receive a response.) Updated Wednesday at 4:50 p.m.: Dallas Police public information officer Sgt. Warren Mitchell confirms the call from Caswell at about 12:54 p.m. Because the child was with at least two adults, the event was categorized as a level 2 emergency, which explains the delay in response time. According to their records, he says, the school did not call police until 1:17 p.m., after the child had been safely returned to campus. Had they called earlier and reported a child missing, it would have been a category 1 emergency and police would have responded almost immediately, Warren says. Had the school called around the same time as Caswell, when the child was missing, and someone put the two calls together and confirmed it was the same child, it might still have been categorized at a 2. But Mitchell says he has no record of a call from the school before 1:17 p.m.

Caswell says he followed up with DPD, whose officers eventually went to the school, but they told him the incident had been turned over to Richardson ISD’s police department. He says he called RISD but couldn’t get information, since he wasn’t related to the child, which he says is completely understandable. He says he also called Child Protective Services.

I’m worried about the safety of the children.

He says his main concern is that the incident will go untold to parents, which worries him as a parent himself, and, of course, “I’m worried about the safety of the children.”

When we contacted the district Tuesday night, their spokesperson Tim Clark said had not been notified of the events, though he promptly checked into it.

Wednesday he confirmed that a special needs student ran away from campus Tuesday afternoon.

“The student was in a fenced-in outdoor play area used by special needs students, opened the gate latch and left the campus during recess. School staff became aware he was missing when recess ended and began looking for him while contacting RISD Safety & Security for assistance. Staff members were out searching for him when a neighborhood resident called indicating the student had been found,” Clark says.”The principal met the resident and a neighborhood parent to pick up the student approximately two blocks from the school.”

Clark says that Stults Principal Leblond spoke with the student’s parents and police.

He adds, “The school is grateful to the neighbors who found the student and kept him safe.”

Despite intense concern about the incident from Caswell and many in the neighborhood, Stults, to date, has been one of those RISD schools that does many things right; in 2011 it became a National Title I Distinguished School, one of only two in Texas. (Video of that here.)

The award is reflective of superior levels of student achievement coupled with innovative programs and practices, district representatives said at the time. Despite a student population that is 80 percent economically disadvantaged. They also have a mentorship program for students with members of nearby Ascension Episcopal.

Insofar as keeping all students safe, Clark says RISD is reviewing procedures for special needs students at the school, and that staff members are receiving additional training in response to this event.