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Parents sue DOE after son was found in Waikiki

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    Kauluwela Elementary

Parents of an autistic 5-year-old boy are suing the Hawaii Department of Education after he wandered away from his elementary school and ended up 5 miles away in Waikiki.

The federal lawsuit filed last week by Kipeni Lutu Jr. and Gabrielle Valdes accuses Kauluwela Elementary of negligent supervision. Lutu went to pick up his son from the school near Honolulu’s Chinatown in February 2014 and found out he had been missing for a few hours, the parents’ attorney, Michael Green, said Monday. Lutu called police and started frantically searching for him.

“Imagine a parent looking in a canal to see if his son’s body is floating in there,” Green said, adding that Lutu also searched inside tents of nearby homeless encampments.

Police eventually found the boy running behind a bus along Kuhio Avenue near the Waikiki Trade Center, the lawsuit said.

The boy, who wasn’t physically injured, hasn’t been able to explain how he got to Waikiki, but his parents think he may have followed someone onto a bus, Green said.

There were only seven or eight children in the class, and teachers were supposed to key a close eye on the boy, said Green, who described him as severely autistic.

“Immediately following the incident in 2014, the school held meetings to review its security procedures,” state Department of Education spokeswoman Donalyn Dela Cruz said in an email. “The administration and staff at Kauluwela Elementary has been vigilant at procedures to keep students safe.”

The boy now attends a different school. Valdes has quit her job to monitor her son more closely, Green said: “You lose trust in the system when you commit your children to be cared for and they drop the ball.”

Green said he hasn’t decided how much money in damages the parents are seeking.

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  • End special education. Too many people do not appreciate what our taxes do for them. Each autistic kid requires a ton of monitoring effort and overtaxes the staff when there is more than one. Impossible situation.

    • Kauluwela Elementary is a DESIGNATED AND FUNDED SPECIAL EDUCATION PROGRAM SCHOOL. It is not an “Impossible situation”. This school also conducts “Adult Education” classes; perhaps you should consider enrolling(?) (assuming you can fill-out the applications)…

    • I hate paying taxes for anything that doesn’t directly benefit me, but we have to fund special education. And quit picking on autistic kids. Poor staff has to work too hard. Ah!

  • DOE will come back with their standard response. By union contract and collective bargaining, DOE staff is not responsible to ensure all students are in their classroom during school hours.

    DOE staff is only responsible for providing the educational training during class hours. Requiring DOE staff to also account for children during class hours would require a new round of collective bargaining, additional pay to DOE staff members for the additional responsibilities.

  • Happened my son in kindergarten. The substitute teacher gave out the kids’ backpacks, so my boy thought it was time to go home. He put on his backpack and walked out of the classroom. He got scared along the way when he didn’t see anyone else walking out, and he ducked into the plants next to the office. Fortunately our neighbor saw him and walked him back to the classroom. That teacher didn’t even know he was missing. Granted she was a substitute, but she had responsibility for him. When I found out what happened, I confronted her. She was very blasé. “At least someone found him.” I was angry, as you can imagine.

      • How do you know their not married? And besides what does that have to do with anything remotely related to this situation? I suppose that you think if the parents had the same last name the children would not have wondered off. Sound ridiculous? You bet.

      • I think busterb is spot on! If the comment had a disclaimer like “it looks like the parents are not married, now maybe they could afford a wedding” maybe would have been a little better but I agree with him, it is likely in this day and age that they are not married and if you can’t commit to one another how can you commit to raising a child.

  • It’s bad to let a 5-year old walk away from school — but what in the heck is this: “the mother quit her job to monitor him” . . . ? Are the parents just making up reasons to ask for money? “I need money from the State because I cannot work anymore, due to having to watch my son through binoculars every day”! It’s as if they are deliberately trying to find ways to build up the amount of money they can ask for. That isn’t how lawsuits should work.

    • @ ryan – Have you ever dealt with an autistic 5 year old? The State has money to accommodate these kids at school. I have no problem with my taxes being used to help put this boy through school. I do however have a problem when the school loses track of a boy like this and we end up paying more money because of their negligence.

    • Right, the parents seem to be spinning the story in the favor of their attempt to extract money from the system. One clue, for people who aren’t familiar with autistic children: Many are “runners,” who are very difficult to keep track of, and can disappear in an instant no matter who is watching them. A big clue is the fact that this 5-year-old ended up FIVE MILES AWAY. The parents must know how much attention their son needs, and to act as if they’re surprised that he slipped away suggests that they are trying to build a case for more money.

      • And I suppose if that happened to your son, you’d accept their apology and move on? No harm done right? The DOE doesn’t need to be punished for their actions even though they’re responsible for our children’s safety? But that’s okay, they said sorry so it’s over. After all, anyone who would sue is obviously “spinning” the story in their favor to get money. And really? he ends up five miles away – after being missing for a “few hours” and you call him a runner???? He could have gotten on a bus and been in Waikiki in 30 minutes!

        • A typical kid who runs from class will go sit under a tree or chase birds on the playground. That he ended up in Waikiki suggests he’s “very” autistic. Even if he got there by bus, that shows how autistic he is, and he’s probably done that kind of thing before–and he probably will do it again. If you’ve never dealt with autistic kids, you cannot know how escape-prone they are. His parents DO KNOW, but are acting as if it’s 100% the school’s fault. Do you know the details of the case? NO.

        • LRob, of course it is not right but yes I would accept the apology as no harm was done. Do you feel it is right that they sue the people of Hawaii for this incident? We all pay. It sets a precedent for scams and ambulance chasers. The school is not a day care center nor a prison. A determined child can escape easily. Can he be taught otherwise? Does it always have to be about money?

    • This is Michael Green’s bread and butter. I’m sure he coached them very well. I bet he’s salivating at the very thought of his 30% cut of the booty.

  • I wonder if the boy was the boy diagnosed with something that made him likely to run away? like ODD oppositional defiant disorder or something. Kids with this are hard to watch and make sure they’re with you all the time. DOE regular schools may not the be place for them.

    • Autism is the main cause of special-needs students running away. It’s worse if an autistic child also has ODD or ADHD (Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder), in which case they are very difficult to control and keep track of. All the people jumping on the DOE without hearing the details are a bunch of ignorant idlots. The parents are falsely pretending to not know that their own son is a runner, trying to make it seem like the school staff were careless. Let’s hope they get little or no money, and that they stop trying to squeeze money out of the system for a not-rare incident.

  • sue, sue, sue….. so sad that that’s all people want to do nowadays. nothing really terrible happened to their son so the parents should take that as a blessing in itself and just use this event as a wake up call for the school. there is no need to want to gain financially for the school’s mistake. how is that going to make things any different in the future? so sad these kinds of parents.

    • Agree. Nothing happened but this incident should have alerted school officials to prevent these things from happening again. Sue to improve procedures but not for money. Grateful is not in the parent’s vocabulary.

      • Which would you prefer– Pages of Government Regulations that may never be enforced by an army of bureaucrats or lawsuits. Lawsuits change behavior in a way that regulations do not and they provide money compensation to those hurt by negligence as this family was plainly hurt and traumatixed. This i why candidates like Ryan Paul, Trump, and many libertarians, and Republicans favor lawsuits over regulations

    • So because nothing happened to the boy, they’re supposed to just say “it’s okay, nothing happened” and move on? What’s to prevent this from happening to some other child? Have you ever had to deal with the special education system in the DOE? Do you know what it’s like and how hard you have to fight to get any kind of services for your special needs child??? If he had ended up in a ditch dead or kidnapped, raped or molested, only then is the DOE supposed to be punished for their ineptitude??

      “so sad these kinds of parents” you say….so sad for people like you that have no idea what it’s like to fight tooth and nail for your child just to get services from the DOE. I pray you NEVER have to go through the feeling of having your child be missing for HOURS and knowing that he can’t tell anyone who he is or where he belongs. Shame on you and all the other trolls posting on this article about how nor harm was done so move on!

      • Seems you have experience dealing with the DOE. Yes, it can be difficult and frustrating. It does vary from school to school, district to district. Sorry that your experience was frustrating. There are classrooms that are understaffed, in which case you can blame the state. There are also negligent teachers and staff, in which case you can blame those people (and admin and the DOE for employing them). But you should also know that there are kids who habitually run away. In which case, suing the state for millions is not in the best interest for the keiki. I won’t say “No harm was done,” because I don’t know the details of the case. Do you?

  • They couldn’t have gotten a better attorney for their case. The state will pay dearly for their mistake. Just another example of the inaptitude of our one party system.

    • The state won’t pay dearly for the mistake of a small group of individuals, the taxpayers will. I don’t see how having more parties in the system would have addressed the failure of a few. Please enlighten me. Thank you!

    • The one party system gives no checks and balances leaving one to do as they wish–no leadership–no one is in charge. Look at all the articles in the SA about the inadequate governing in so many departments.

  • “Green said he hasn’t decided how much money in damages the parents are seeking” – Green hasn’t decided huh. When things like this happen, I would expect a Teacher and/or the class aide to be terminated from DOE employment. But just watch, no one will be held responsible, absolutely no one. This situation is completely unacceptable and will likely cost taxpayers big money to resolve. It’s about time taxpayers demanded accountability in state and city government. The employees responsible should be terminated immediately, in private sector employment, this would go without saying.

  • You know when someone hires Green, they will win. Big cut for parents and Green. In SPED classes if child IEP states he needs a one on one then why was one not provided if he is severely autistic? If child is not that severe then there is no need for a one on one. SPED children and their parents have a lot of say with the DOE and some of them just put their children in SPED so they can get services. I think there is more to this story than they are saying. There is always two sides to a story. Let the school speak and because this child is SPED there is FEFPA so they can’t talk. Big joke.

  • So sad for the fear everyone endured. Wondering if it would be terribly costly or impractical to install an RFID tag alert system at the doorway of the classroom? The systems seem to work well in department stores.

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