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In a Northern California city last week, five year-old Kirby Jackson walked home from school after he ended his kindergarten day. He walked home, alone, around noontime, through three miles of busy streets. No one noticed. Once home, he called his mom at work to say hi, which almost gave his mother a heart attack. He was supposed to be in after-care at his local public elementary school. When the mother called the school to see what had happened, the school didn't even know Kirby was gone.
Can a School Release a Kindergartner to No One?
Absent any state or local laws to the contrary, a school can release a kindergartner from school without a parental hand-off. Passed in 2016, the Every Student Succeeds Act is a federal rule that protects the rights of kids (let's be honest - it protects the right of "free range parents") to walk or go out alone. The act was intended to provide protection to parents who feel that their kids should be allowed some autonomy to get by on their own. However, it can be overridden by state and local municipalities, who are deemed to know the safety of their local streets best.
So It's OK to Let My Kindergartner Walk Home Alone?
State laws are intentionally vague on this issue, leaving it up to the parent's discretion. But beware parents -- Child Protective Services can be called on you if your judgment is unreasonable by local standards. If parents are looking for some accepted guidelines, the Safe Routes to School program recommends children under the age of 10 not cross a street alone.They believe that the best criteria for making this judgment call is to evaluate the distance to the school, the availability of sidewalks, the type of neighborhood and the local street safety measures. The consensus seems to be that 5-year-olds are too young, 6- and 7-year-olds should walk in a group and that by age 10 most kids are ready.
Can Kirby's Parents Sue the School?
Do Kirby's parents have a claim for negligence in this situation? The five elements of a negligence case are: duty, breach, actual and proximate causation, and damages. There was clearly a duty of care: his parents had signed him up for after-school care, and it was the duty of the school to supervise Kirby during the after-care session. Letting him slip out of their hands was certainly a breach of that care. However, Kirby did make it home safely, and frankly, he was very proud of that accomplishment. His parents didn't learn about the walk until after he arrived home, and so it's hard to show duress. In order to have a negligence claim, there has to be some injury or damage that can be made whole through a monetary payment.
Time will tell if there were any injuries from this duty and breach that weren't immediately apparent. To date, the school district has been very tight-lipped about the situation. Kirby's parents are justifiably angry that the school isn't saying more than "no harm, no foul" here.
If you or your loved ones have been the victim of a negligence claim, either by a school or someone else, call a local personal injury attorney, who can listen to your unique situation, and provide you with some guidance and suggestions for next steps.