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.