KINGSPORT — Four-year-old Olivia Collins, a pre-K student at Lincoln Elementary School, managed to slip out of the building during a bathroom break Tuesday morning and to walk to her home a few blocks away.
No one from the school initially noticed her absence or her exit from a side door for the fourth-tenths-of-a-mile walk, which a witness said included the child nearly being hit by a vehicle that stopped with screeching tires.
Olivia had some help near the end of the journey from that witness, Good Samaritan Alyssa Hunter, who passed by on Lamont Street and finished the walk to the girl’s East Sevier Avenue home. Hunter said a car almost hit Olivia as she tried to cross the street.
“How did she get out of the whole entire school without anybody seeing her?” asked Hunter, who graduated from Dobyns-Bennett High School. “I was appalled.”
Hunter said she also is worried because she has a 5-year-old at Jackson Elementary and a 3-year-old getting ready for Head Start, as well as a 17-year-old. Hunter also said she called the school to ask where Olivia was instead of the school system first calling Tiffani Collins, Olivia’s mother, about her missing daughter.
Collins said she is upset beyond words and took Olivia’s twin brother and a first-grade sibling out of Lincoln Tuesday. She said she won’t return the twins until she is assured measures have been taken to stop such occurrences in the future and meets with Superintendent Jeff Moorhouse, the head of the preschool program and a school resource officer.
She suggested that alarms be installed on side doors.
“I’m not over the situation. I don’t want this to happen to another family,” Collins said, adding that she wants assurances from school officials that another such incident would “never, ever happen again.”
WHAT DID SCHOOL SYSTEM OFFICIALS SAY?
“First and foremost, we are relieved that our young student is safe,” Assistant Superintendent of Administration Andy True said via email. “The situation today is certainly not what is expected and is causing us to fully examine our processes and protocols. Dr. Moorhouse has spoken with Mrs. Collins today to express our shared concern. We understand that she and our community place a high expectation of trust in us, and steps will be taken to address these concerns based on what occurred today.”
Collins said Lincoln Principal Suzanne Zahner, who could not be reached for comment Tuesday, and then Moorhouse called her Tuesday afternoon, returning her calls from that morning to the school and to the Administrative Support Center. Moorhouse and Zahner were in a principals meeting that morning, True said.
“All they can offer is they’re sorry this happened” and that efforts are underway to be sure it never happens again, Collins said. She also said they told her they were “shocked I’m taking it so well. I don’t think I’m taking it well.”
Collins said she and her sister took Olivia and her twin brother to the Lincoln pre-K at 8:30 a.m. Collins went back to begin her home-based job at about 9:30. About 45 minutes later, while on the phone doing her job, she heard a child crying and realized it was one of hers.
“It sounded like one of my children,” Collins said of her mother’s intuition. “I took off running out the front door.”
She found Hunter in the front yard with Olivia and then called the Kingsport Police Department. After an officer arrived, Collins said, a secretary from the school arrived.
Collins declined to let a reporter interview her daughter, but she said Olivia told her and the police that she left while she and other classmates were on a bathroom break, when groups of students are led to the restroom. KPD Public Information Officer Tom Patton Tuesday confirmed the KPD responded to a call about the child being found but said the incident was handed over to the school system to handle internally.
“She knew she wanted to come home and see her mommy,” Collins said, adding that the family recently moved to the area and is new to Kingsport and Lincoln. “I don’t want her to feel like she’s in trouble.” However, Collins said she’s told her daughter not to leave school without an adult and without permission.
“I never put her (Olivia) in my vehicle,” Hunter said, adding that she parked the car and walked with Olivia while her passenger drove the car behind them from Lamont to East Sevier. Collins said her daughter mentioned a “mean man” was following her on her walk home, but Collins said she later learned that was a man trying to drive Olivia home and that he then called authorities. Hunter said Olivia told her she was walking home and where she lived.
“It’s every mother’s worst nightmare,” Collins said.