5-year-old left at home alone after first day of school

5-year-old left at home alone after first day of school

FISHER — The first day of school was like Christmas for 5-year-old Jacob Chittick, who woke up at 5 a.m. thrilled to finally be in kindergarten.

He literally skipped into Fisher Grade School, loved his teacher, and by all accounts had a great time — right up until he was left home alone for five hours because of a busing snafu.

Instead of going to his after-school program at Fisher Community Church when school let out at 11 a.m. Aug. 17, Jacob was dropped off at his empty house in rural Fisher.

He wasn't discovered until a stranger coasted into the driveway hours later after running out of gas along Dewey-Fisher Road north of Champaign. The man was able to track down Jacob's father, who raced home from his job as an auto mechanic in Champaign.

Jake Chittick found his son covered in dirt from playing outside and visible tear streaks down his face. He'd been crying throughout the day and looked "pitiful," his dad said.

"At 5, you can't even tell time," said his grandmother, Michele Spading.

"It probably just seemed like forever."

Jacob's family feels fortunate that a Good Samaritan pulled into the house that day.

"It was a stroke of luck. These people were good people," Chittick said. "It'd just take another person showing up and the story would be different.

"Dramatically."

Both the Kids Club after-school program and the classroom teacher, Emily Saathoff, quickly acknowledged the mistake, and Saathoff wrote a note of apology and took extra care the next day to make sure Jacob got on the right bus for the after-school program, Chittick said. But he was disappointed in the response from school administrators.

"It's her job and responsibility to put him on the right bus, but it was her very first day of her very first year of teaching," he said. "Does it fall on her shoulders or on the people who trained her? They should have helped her."

The News-Gazette was unable to reach Saathoff for comment.

Contacted Wednesday, Superintendent Barb Thompson apologized and took responsibility for the mistake. She blamed a convergence of factors, including miscommunication between the bus driver and Chittick about Jacob's after-school plans.

The teacher followed a list prepared by the district's transportation department showing which child belonged on which bus route and "was only doing what she was directed to do. This was not her fault," Thompson said.

Children sign up for bus service at registration, and the transportation department assigns them to a route, she said. The bus driver then contacts the parent to discuss pickup and drop-off times.

The bus driver in this case talked to Chittick, who told him Jacob wouldn't need morning bus service on that first day. The driver said the subject of drop-off arrangements after school didn't come up, Thompson said.

"I'm not sure if he didn't ask the right question or what," she said. "That won't happen again."

Chittick said he thought he had covered the topic with everybody from registration on, including the driver, who did apologize to him the next day.

Asked why the bus driver left Jacob that morning with no adults present, Thompson said, "That's obviously something that we have to deal with and have dealt with. We typically have a visual of a parent or a certain car in the drive."

She declined to name the bus driver but said he's worked for the district for more than five years and is "a great employee who goes above and beyond in every way shape and form." He is still driving the bus.

"We're very sorry that it happened. Above all else the last thing we would ever want to do is put a child in harm's way," she said. "We're so very thankful that the child ended up being OK."

Chittick, a divorced single dad, said Jacob knew something was wrong when he got on the bus after school that first day, but he was afraid to tell the driver. "It was the very first time he'd seen the bus driver or been on a bus," he said.

When they got to his house, Jacob was greeted in the drive by his dog, a St. Bernard. An independent sort, he was able to let himself into the house with a spare key hidden on the property, something he had practiced with his dad.

The nearest neighbor is almost a mile away, and he'd been taught to stay away from the road. So Jacob got himself an apple and a Gogurt from the fridge and pulled out his Play-Doh and toy cars. He played outside with his dog, who "follows him everywhere," and loaded up his Tonka trucks with gravel and dirt from the yard, Chittick said. He told his dad, "I had Kitty to cuddle with when I was sad."

When Jacob saw the man pull into the driveway he went up to the car, presumably thrilled to see a human being, his dad said. The driver had gotten off work in Champaign and didn't notice that his gas tank was low before heading home to Fisher.

Jacob had been taught not to talk to strangers, but "at this point he's been alone for four and a half hours," Chittick said.

The man suspected something was wrong. Jacob told him his dad wasn't home but worked at Beaumont Tire and Auto in Champaign. In another lucky coincidence, the man's wife is related by marriage to Beaumont's owner. She called his office and tracked down Chittick's boss, who immediately sent him home. It was about 4:45 p.m.

Time was a blur, but Chtitick estimates it only took 5 or 10 minutes to drive to his house.

"I drove like a moron, speed-racing home," he said. "I was a nervous wreck. I was thinking, 'Boy, I'll bet he's hungry.'"

Chittick placed calls that evening to the superintendent's office, the school, Jacob's teacher and the Kids Club. School offices were already closed, but Kids Club administrator Staci Benson soon returned his call.

Benson said she doesn't always know which children are coming to Kids Club from the school on a given day and assumed Jacob's dad had picked him up on his first day. She apologized profusely and made arrangements to contact Chittick directly if Jacob fails to show up again.

"I am just glad that he was OK, and that we could work with the family to ensure that it wouldn't happen again," she said.

Jacob's teacher called Chittick first thing the next morning, last Thursday. Chittick reminded her that he had told her at a "meet the teacher" event that Jacob would be going to the after-school program, which she didn't initially remember but later confirmed after checking her notes.

Thompson said that meeting is something the kindergarten teachers set up themselves and didn't involve the transportation department. When the teacher got the new bus list last week, she assumed that was the latest information, as "things change all the time," Thompson said.

The district has seven bus drivers who transport 400 of the 590 children in grades K through 12. The grade school has 333 students.

Chittick said he also called the superintendent's office that Thursday morning and left a message with Thompson's secretary, but never got a call back.

Thompson said her focus after she got Chittick's message was to figure out what happened and ensure it wasn't repeated. She also knew that he had already spoken with the teacher and "felt like we were doing everything we could to get things under control."

"Nobody took it lightly," she said. "It's not typical for us to have this kind of issue."

Chittick said he talked with Principal James Moxley that Thursday afternoon when he called to check whether Jacob had been delivered safely to the after-school program. He said Moxley suggested that Kids Club staff should have called when Jacob didn't show up; Chittick replied that his son's safety was the school's responsibility first.

Moxley also apologized but said he wanted Chittick to talk directly with the teacher, who had "first-hand information." She did, after walking Jacob to the right bus to make sure he got on safely, he said.

"We discussed how it could have been handled better and she took those steps to rectify it on the second day," Moxley said. "It was an unfortunate event, something that we would never want to happen again."

Thompson and Moxley said Wednesday that better communication is needed with the Kids Club.

"If we could have gotten a call saying, 'Where is this child?' we would have had this child back here as soon as the route was done," Thompson said. "A lot of things could have happened to make this not happen. I will fix what I can on my end, and get procedures in place from everybody else's side also."

By his second day of school last week, Jacob's attitude toward school had drastically changed. He didn't want to get out of bed and asked his dad if he could go to work with him instead, said Spading, who lives with Chittick and works at Parkland College.

"He's coming back out of it," Chittick said Wednesday. "He's happy about school again."

But he believes it's a community issue, noting it has happened in other districts. Chittick and Spading wanted to share their story "to make sure it doesn't happen to anybody else."

Comments

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vetchic wrote on August 25, 2011 at 11:08 am

My poor buddies! Jacob is such a good little boy with a very involved father. This was an unfortunate incdent that will more than likely be swept under the rug with some cold apologies and a whole lot of "it wasnt my fault". If a parent were to of made this kind of mistake they would likely get spoken to about child neglect or even investigated..... Someone is responsible for this and should have some consequenses.

tigersy2k3 wrote on August 25, 2011 at 11:08 am

did you read the article? The people apologized, what right do you have to assume they were "cold" and not heart-felt apologies? There doesnt always have to be consequenses everytime a mistake happens. Should the teacher on her first day of her career teaching lose her job? Should a faithful veteran bus driver who made a mistake lose his job? Cant people just be thankful that this mistake ended the way it did?

I am sure you have made several mistakes along the line in your personal life, career, ect. Just think if you had to walk around in fear that any wrong step you would lose your job or have consquences. The superitendent spoke to the people (it mentions the bus driver),so the situation was dealt with.

You should be so quick to point the finger of whose "fault" it was. Did the father discuss "after school plans with the bus driver?" It doesnt say,so why didnt the father say, "So you know he goes to XYZ after school?"

It appears other then a few tears and a little dirt that the child is perfectly fine. Yes it is unfortante, and the parents will have to talk to him to assure him it was a mistake and wont happen again, but a 5 year old is going to react to the reaction of the people around him. So now it is up to the adults in his life to act like adults and keep a calm demeanor about them, and who knows, maybe even a good parent would use this as an opportunity to teach the child a lesson about how mistakes happen, and it is good to forgive people for making an honest mistake

vetchic wrote on August 25, 2011 at 1:08 pm

Yes I did read the article and I have every right to state the facts considering I know the facts from those who were involved.. I never said anyone should lose their job.... Did you read my post??? I said it was an unfortunate situation but some one did drop the ball and the apologies were along the lines of sorry it happened, wont happen again... I feel for all those involved. I know this little boy and he was affected by this... more than just a few tears and dirt. Sorry I feel my friends childs saftey shouldnt be used as a lesson learned circumstance.....

tigersy2k3 wrote on August 25, 2011 at 3:08 pm

I just dont get what kind of apology you want if that isnt good enough for you, and since it already happened and nothing is going to change the fact that it did happen what should this instance be used as, if they cant use it as a "lesson learned circumstance"?

anotherparent wrote on August 25, 2011 at 4:08 pm

You know the story from HALF of the people that were involved. As we all know there are 2 sides to every story. Did he verify with the bus garage where his child was being brought to after school? The teacher was given information after her conversation with the father on the meet the teacher night that told her the bus was taking him home. I can understand how she would believe that the situation had changed and that the list from the transportation department was correct. I also have to wonder what you wanted from the apology. You did not say anyone should have lost their job but you are saying sorry is not good enough. What would be good enough for you?

Spike wrote on August 27, 2011 at 2:08 pm

"Sorry I feel my friends childs saftey shouldnt be used as a lesson learned circumstance"

Yeah, that doesn't even make sense.

anotherparent wrote on August 25, 2011 at 4:08 pm

I happen to know this teacher personally. I worked with her for several years while she was a student. I can say with certainty that her apology was heart felt and that she will take every precaution necesaary to make sure that this does not happen again. She is one of the sweetest people that I have ever met and I believe that this has probably been very hard on her as well. She is new and she is still learning and there are a lot of variables in this situation. I am not saying this is okay but the child is safe and I do not think a public flogging will make anything better.

cbane80 wrote on August 26, 2011 at 12:08 pm

From reading the story it seems that this teacher is a sweet person and feels badly about what happened and will learn from the mistake. The principal however...blaming the kids program for the little boy not showing up? Take responsibility. Leadership starts at the top, from this article it seems that he is teaching his teachers to blame others. My opinion is that it could have something to do with the fact that Moxley was a teacher/coach in the father's school district and they probably did not have had a good relationship. Moxley doesn't want to admit to Jake that his school is responsible for the mishap. Maybe if it had been someone else's child he wouldn't place the blame elsewhere. Sidenote: If it were my child I would hug him for days, that is an extremely scary situation.

mankind wrote on August 26, 2011 at 10:08 am

Someone at Kids Club should have looked at their attendance list after the kids arrived, noticed that the boy was missing, and called the father and the school district right away to ask what's up. Say the boy had wandered off into the fields in the heat or if the stranger was a bad guy. He would have been gone at least six hours before anyone even knew it.

Spike wrote on August 27, 2011 at 3:08 pm

"This was an unfortunate incdent that will more than likely be swept under the rug with some cold apologies and a whole lot of "it wasnt my fault"."

Swept under the rug? Do you realizing you're commenting on a news site?

ghost1355 wrote on August 25, 2011 at 12:08 pm

It is amazing Go-Gurt saves lives, especially a 5 year olds. They should hold an interview with the hero, and ask it where it gets all of its moxy.

Sandy wrote on August 25, 2011 at 12:08 pm

I wouldn't presume to say that anyone should be fired, but the argument "everyone makes mistakes" is naive. Yes, everyone does make them, but some mistakes are clearly worse than others, and it's not unusual for some mistakes to result in dismissal (or worse). If your surgeon makes mistakes he is sued; if the engineer driving a train makes a mistake he could be charged with manslaughter. This little boy was lucky, and he was amazingly independent; many five-year-olds wouldn't fare this well.

It sounds as if the district is trying to address this, which was all to the good. I'm not sure why the school district thinks Kids Club was at fault for not immediately assuming the school district screwed up and lost the child -- wouldn't they naturally think this boy was ill or his parents had made other arrangements? Blaming them does nothing to improve my opinion of the district.

If this were my kid I'd be livid. Parents shouldn't have to depend on the kindness of strangers to ensure their child's safety.

vetchic wrote on August 25, 2011 at 1:08 pm

Thank you for the little bit of back up on this... I dont think anyone should be fired but a HUGE mistake was made and as always not everything is conveyed or revealed in the article... I am simply angry and I know those directly involved feel terrible but others were cold and quick to pass it off as a simple mishap....

ghost1355 wrote on August 25, 2011 at 3:08 pm

It pretty much is a simple mishap. Stuff happens even with the best of safeguards in place. Its funny how a witch hunt/burning is almost a given with these circumstances now. Its not like the kid was 2 and they put him in a basanet to float down a river. The fact this is news is kinda of mind boggling. Also, it looks like a comment from tigersky was taken down. Feels a little like censorship to me.

tigersy2k3 wrote on August 25, 2011 at 3:08 pm

Im sure this will not meet the approval of others posting here either, so im sure the "suggest removal" button for your post is lighting up too as your opinion doesnt conform with the majority.

Oh wait, is that a 15 year old out there crossing Rt 136 from the high school without a crossing guard or supervisor... I am going to make an immediate call to the district, this needs to be addressed immediately and I explect consequences

turtledove wrote on August 25, 2011 at 3:08 pm

Hearing about this incident sent mixed emotions through me. As a parent and a grandparent, I can put myself in the position of Mr Chittick and understand his frustration and search for answers. But I have the upmost respect for the Administration of our School District. I am so sorry for any trauma that this little guy may have been put through, but I give Mr Chittick a big hand for training his child in the way that he has. He did what he was suppose to do as a parent. Something many parents fail to do in this day and age. This incident, as unforseen as it really was, is a learning experience for all(Our School District and it's staff, Kids Club and their staff, the child and parent involved and our community) It did happen, we cannot change that fact, but we can move forward in a positive manner and see that it doesn't happen again. Apologies may seem trivial to those involved at this moment. But, one should look at the character of the person giving the apology and know and understand that it was given with the best intentions and sincerity.

tigersy2k3 wrote on August 25, 2011 at 3:08 pm

at least they got some good picture out of this. Hopefully the New Gazette gives them copies

areader wrote on August 25, 2011 at 7:08 pm

A parent should take responsibility for his/her OWN child! Every step of the plan should be covered by the parent(s) with the school officials! Period!

sahuoy wrote on August 25, 2011 at 9:08 pm

"A convergence of factors?" How hard is it to insure kindergarten kids get on the correct bus? I don't blame the teacher for trusting her superiors but this should motivate her to seek administrative as a profession. The entire bureaucracy of the school system failed sadly. Its just as disgusting as a prisoner breaking out of a jail and victimizing citizens in a quest to not go back. If parents are expected to not trust skilled, educated laborers then a parent should sit in every class of every child all day long. Get real, Fisher admin failed and this innocent little boy was victimized and traumatized. No point in suing the Fisher school system but those persons personally responsible should be removed. It is simply disgusting. My heart goes out to the family and their child, keep the faith, its the best we've got but in this matter the person who dropped the ball is not the best for Fisher or any where else where a child's welfare is their responsibility. Awful.... have you seen the movie Changling? Watch it!!!!! True Story!!!!!

ckgenzel06 wrote on August 25, 2011 at 10:08 pm

As a parent of another kindergarten student at FGS, I would like to say I was told during registration that I would be contacted by the Director of Transportation to find out how my child would be traveling to and from school. I never was contacted but actually spoke to the director the first day of school because my child instead of being brought out of the classroom was SENT to the room where they send all in-town students for the bus and I was standing right in front of the teacher when they were sent there. At the "meet the teacher" night the teacher asked how my child would be arriving and departing the school grounds and told them that my child would be picked up. I feel so badly for this little boy and can't even imagine his and his father's heartbreak at the fact that the school district dropped the ball for him on his very first day. Keep your chin up Jacob, it will be a GREAT year bud!

Spike wrote on August 27, 2011 at 3:08 pm

The teacher was just following her directions from the Transportation Department. To suggest that she should be disciplined is inane.

Glad Chittick got his public flogging...