Tianna Green’s six-year-old daughter, a first-grader at Hilltop Elementary School in Inver Grove Heights, walked out of her school without permission on May 10 and was driven away by a man who was later arrested by police while she watched. Although her daughter was finally returned home unharmed, Green still wants answers from school officials on how this could have happened and is appalled at how the district has responded.
“There was a [special] program at her school,” recalled Green. “She basically was allowed to sign herself out of that program, and she left with her friend and her friend’s dad.”
According to Hilltop School Principal Thomas Barker, no child is allowed to sign themselves out. “It is not a policy, but a school procedure,” he stated, adding that “an authorized adult” is required to sign out a child. “If it is not an authorized adult on our emergency card, then we need written permission from the parent.”
However, Green said her daughter did not receive her permission to leave school with a friend, and added, “Her friend’s dad had a warrant for his arrest. It was a big mess.”
Green said she first learned about her daughter having left school without permission around 3:45 pm that afternoon, “about the time she usually arrives at home. The school never called me. Her friend’s mom actually called me and let me know that my daughter was with her daughter’s dad.
“I asked her where were they located, what was going on, and how can I get my daughter back,” Green continued. “She [the friend’s mother] said she didn’t exactly know where they’re at, and his cell phone battery was dead. She was going to call me back in 15 minutes, but she didn’t. I tried to call her back, but it kept going straight to voice mail.”
Green later learned that her daughter’s friend’s dad had a warrant out for his arrest. The police eventually found her daughter at the other child’s home not too far from the school, where the father was arrested. Her daughter later explained that she wanted to go to a fast-food restaurant with her friend, said Green.
“I will never know where she was. It was a big mess. It was the longest four hours of my life.”
To make matters worse, Green says that since the incident she has been treated rudely by school officials, beginning with Barker. “He told me that I needed to speak with the teacher,” the mother said. “The teacher really was no help. [She] was trying to blame the whole incident on two six-year-olds and it wasn’t her fault. I was offended by that.”
The teacher also claimed that the other child’s mother said it was all right for Green’s child to leave school early. “I think that the school should have called me once they talked to [the child’s] mom,” Green surmised.
“The school didn’t even notify the district about the incident, and [district officials] couldn’t even answer my questions when I originally called them, because they had no knowledge of the incident,” continued Green. “The lady said she was embarrassed that this incident wasn’t reported to her, and she had to call me back.”
The official later informed her that a new policy was now in effect stipulating that a child cannot leave school without a parent or guardian or the permission of a parent or guardian. “I asked them to send me a copy of the previous policy,” said Green. “I have yet to receive it.”
The following statement dated May 12 was placed on the Inver Grove Heights website: “A recent event regarding a child signing out with a friend without parent approval has caused the District to re-evaluate and tighten sign-out procedures… The procedure of sign-out from a classroom following a program…will be discontinued.”
“We are comfortable with our new procedures,” said Barker.
Changing policies shouldn’t have been needed, said the child’s grandmother, Renee McKinley. “That should have been in place from the very beginning for the sake of the child’s safety.” McKinley, who lives in St. Paul, pointed out, “Everybody knows that when a child is on school property, that school is responsible for that kid.”
“Something is not right here,” agreed Margaret Jones Brooks, a family friend.
Both first-graders are Black. “I felt like if it was any other child of a different culture, it would have played out differently,” McKinley said.
“I wonder if my daughter was a different kind of student or looked differently, that they would’ve treated me differently,” concurred Green, who further contends that she was threatened by school officials after she kept her daughter home from school following the incident.
“I got three phone calls and two letters for those three days. I’ve been debating the last couple of weeks of sending her back [to school]. But I felt threatened when I talked to the principal and he told me that I could go to jail for truancy if I didn’t send her back to school. I ended up sending her back. I felt that I was harassed.”
When asked for a reply to Green’s accusations, Barker responded, “I am saying that I have no comment.”
The MSR also tried to contact Inver Grove Heights Superintendent Deirdre Wells, but she did not respond to our interview requests. However, district spokesman Johnny Germscheid reiterated that a child must provide written permission from their parent or guardian if they want to leave school early or with a classmate. “This was the first time an incident like this occurred in the district,” said Germscheid.
Responding to Green’s contention that she was harassed and threatened, “As far as I know, there were no threats that took place,” said Germscheid. “There is a student attendance policy according to Minnesota state statutes that students who don’t have an excused absence are considered truant. The district was just abiding by Minnesota state statutes.”
“I really find it just disappointing that I have yet to receive an apology in writing or verbally at all from the school,” said Green. “I find it appalling that I had to wait a week [after the incident] to hear back from the superintendent. I left message after message.”
“It is a closed matter,” said Barker as he refused further comment.
Green said, “I work too far away to be wondering if my kid is going to be OK in school. They haven’t apologized or anything… I feel like that district doesn’t care.
“The school is trying to make it seem like they didn’t do anything wrong, but it seems something like this could happen at any time, which is why I am moving out of the school district,” Green continued. “I don’t think they took it seriously or the issue was really addressed.”
Green has reemphasized to her daughter that she is not to leave school with or talk to strangers. “She was pretty scared when the guy got arrested. She wasn’t even sleeping for the first week [after the incident].”
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-record er.com.