Advocates for missing children: schools should review policies

CHESAPEAKE, Va. – This spring, a Chesapeake teenager ran away from Indian River High School seemingly undetected, and escaped her school’s campus with a man unknown to the family.

Her parents, who said they only learned of the girl’s disappearance when she didn’t return home from school that day, voiced frustrationover the school’s lack of communication about their daughter’s disappearance from school.

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“We send our kids to school as a safe haven,” said community activist and Patterson family spokesperson Brandon Randleman. “[I don’t know] how we get to the point where a child is able to walk out a side door of a high school and get in a car with a stranger.”

“It is certainly concerning that [the child] was able to leave school unnoticed while school was still in session,” said Black and Missing Foundation founder Derrica Wilson. “I think this is a critical time for schools to look at their processing procedures.”

Wilson said her organization was instrumental in getting the U.S. Marshals involved in Patterson’s case. They found the 16-year-old girl safe in Trenton, N.J. in May, six weeks after her disappearance from her school’s campus.

According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, between 2018 and 2022, there were 7,762 endangered runaways between the ages of 11 to 17 years old who ran away from a school or campus daycare. While that represents just over 6 percent of all run away origin sites for that time period, advocates for missing children said it should be enough to inspire school leaders to review their policies.

“You can’t necessarily prevent a child – especially as they get into the higher-level schools [like high school] –from skipping [school by] going out of a side door,” said Leemie Kahng-Sofer with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. “[These cases help] bring to light something that schools should be internally looking at. What are their policies? What is their monitoring? What is staff looking at?”

According to the Code of Virginia, “Whenever any pupil fails to report to school on a regularly scheduled school day…” it’s mandated that “a reasonable effort to notify by telephone the parent to obtain an explanation for the pupil’s absence shall be made by either the school principal or his designee…”

However, Joseph Wharff with the Virginia Department of Education said the law “would not necessarily cover notification of a student that reports to school and then leaves during the school day.”

News 3 Investigates also reached out to the director of public safety training and the Virginia Center for School and Campus Safety with the state’s Department of Criminal Justice Services, Donna Micahelis, about the policies and procedures.

“While individual school divisions may have policies that address such, there is no mandate from the state level,” Michaelis said regarding guidelines on children leaving campus without approval during the school day.

News 3 Investigates sent requests for information about reporting policies to school districts in the seven cities.

Policies from school leaders in Portsmouth Public Schools, Suffolk Public Schools, Norfolk Public Schools and Hampton City Schools specifically mention the involvement of a School Resource Officer when a child leaves campus without approval.

For example, the Portsmouth Public Schools policy reads, “If a student is found to have left campus without following the school’s check out procedures, then school administration attempts contact with the student’s family as well as makes law enforcement aware (which could be the school resource officer on site) to help begin locating the student.”

However, policies sent to News 3 from Newport News Public Schools, Virginia Beach City Public Schools did not contain directives about School Resource Officer involvement. Policies in these districts point to communicating with parents about absences throughout the day in parent portals.

Chesapeake Public Schools, for example, said “Attendance secretaries actively monitor the attendance of students throughout the day” and”parents can see period attendance” in the ParentVue portal. A district representative also said parents and guardians “are notified for all day absences at 10:30 a.m. for elementary schools, 1:30 p.m. for middle schools, and 4:30 p.m. for high schools.”

Wilson said the lack of consistency across district policies locally and nationally is troubling.

“I think this is a critical time for schools to look at their processing procedures. I think it’s a critical time for law enforcement to look at their policies and procedures,” Wilson said.

Individual school districts, a state legislator, or the governor’s office would have to address the policies and guidelines.

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