SIDNEY — Two very different recollections of a bizarre situation that occurred on Wednesday, Jan 2, have basically one fact in common; that being that a student walked out of the Bevins Elementary School and was discovered on U.S. 119, a roadway that is traveled by a high volume of traffic. This fact, however, is where the similarities end.
The Daily News interviewed the elementary school Principal Amy Swiney in her office on Friday and also spoke with the Good Samaritan credited with getting the young child out of the median of U.S. 119 and onto the side of the road, who was identified as Keith Looney, the owner and operator of Looney’s Body Shop, located on Ky. Rt. 292. Following will be the accounts from both individuals and how they say the incident played out.
“I had been called out on a wreck on 119 and was headed back to my business when I saw something that scared me to death,” stated Looney. “I was in my rollback with a wrecked vehicle loaded when I approached the bridge on the 4 lane that’s near the entrance ramp if you’re coming from the Sidney area to get on 119 to go to Pikeville, when I was shocked to see a little girl that looked to be 7 or 8 years of age standing beside of the middle concrete barrier, on the northbound lane side. She wasn’t even visible from the southbound lane.”
“I couldn’t just slam on my brakes with the load I was hauling so I pulled over as quickly as I could and began backing up on the shoulder of the road, toward where the little girl was standing. I was shaking I was so scared…I was hoping and praying she didn’t step out into the traffic before I could get to her.”
Looney said that while he was backing up, he placed a call to Kentucky State Police (KSP) Post 9 in Pikeville (the time of the call was recorded at 9:14 a.m.) informing them of what was happening and asked that they dispatch a trooper or someone from the closest fire dept. to help him get the child to safety.
“I was traveling alone and I knew that the sight of this big truck with flashing lights and a wrecked vehicle on the back probably would scare her, and I was very worried she’d try to dart back across the other lane of traffic,” commented Looney. “When I got stopped across from where she was, I began talking to her, emphasizing for her to not move until I told it was clear and then to run across the road toward me. When there was a break in traffic, I motioned her on across and that’s when she froze up – right on the divided line of the 4 lane. I was terrified, my heart was beating out of my chest, but thankfully, I was able to get her safely to the grass beside of the road.”
“I asked her where she had come from and what she was doing in the middle of the road and she told me she had left school and was trying to get home…she said she just wanted to go home. She asked me to take her there and I told her we had to wait right where we were, that I had someone coming to help her.”
Looney said that shortly before KSP Trooper Hoyt Smith arrived on scene, three people who identified themselves as school staff members pulled up where he was standing with the child and one of them told her to get in the vehicle that they were taking her back to school, to which Looney said he replied, “No, she’s not going anywhere until a trooper gets here – I don’t know who you all are for one thing, and second of all, you’ve already had her in your care once today and she left, so we’re going to stand right here until the police show up.”
Looney stated that just a few minutes after this occurred, Trooper Smith arrived and spoke with him and the school staff members, who he said once again asked to take the child back to school, but said the officer placed the child in his cruiser and transported her there himself so he could have an opportunity to try to get to the bottom of what had taken place.
‘I’ve been in the body shop business and I’ve owned tow trucks for a lot of years,” stated Looney. “Not only that, but I’m also a volunteer fireman with both Belfry and Turkey Creek Fire Departments and I have personally witnessed the result of what a moving vehicle can do to a body. That was the terrifying thought that kept running through my mind as I was trying to get that child off of the 4-lane. I was absolutely scared to death.”
“What amazes me about the whole situation now that I’ve really started thinking about it was how many vehicles had passed this little girl without stopping to enquire where she was going or if she needed help, or at the very least, they should have called 911 and reported it. This child had to have walked approximately ¾ of a mile, maybe a little more, in order to have reached the spot where I saw her standing. She walked up the two-lane from the school, onto the entrance ramp for U.S. 119 and had crossed the northbound lane and was in the middle, next to the barrier. That would have taken someone her age and size at least 45 minutes to complete. It was cold – there had been black ice on the road and not only was the traffic a threat, someone with ill intentions could have grabbed her and this could have ended in a very different way.”
The account of how the incident played out from the school’s perspective was very different, and is written as they were told the Daily News by Principal Swiney.
According to Swiney, the incident occurred shortly after 9 a.m. The student was tardy that morning, and was dropped off at school by a family member and was only in her classroom for a short period of time when she apparently walked out while her teacher was assisting a group of children in another center (the classroom is divided up into 4 groups of students), and exited the school building via a door near the cafeteria which is not typically monitored by a staff member. The objective of the child, Swiney later said she learned, was to catch the family member that dropped her off at school because she wanted to go back home.
The youngster, according to Swiney, is said to have walked from school property, onto the roadway and when she was discovered, she was said to have been walking on the grassy area that runs parallel to U.S. 119, not in the road as the witness said. The principal said that a male driving in the southbound lane observed the child, pulled over and attempted to ask her where she was going and where she had come from, but the child refused to speak. She said he immediately went to the school and alerted them to the child’s whereabouts, while a search has already ensued within the building for the student after the teacher became aware of her absence.
“Within just a few moments of the child leaving the classroom, the teacher realized she was gone and sent other students to the cafeteria and to the restroom to see if she was there,” stated Swiney. “When she could not be located, she called the office to alert us and as we were talking to her, the gentlemen rang the buzzer at the front door of the school, saying a child was walking in the grass beside of U.S. 119.”
“She was only missing probably 15 minutes at the most before she was found,” said Swiney, which is a very different time frame than that provided by Looney.
The principal said three of her staff members that included the secretary, an instructional assistant and the custodian jumped in their vehicles and went directly to where the child was located and said that two other people had stopped to offer assistance and were there with the student. The secretary for Bevins, Sandy Harrison, told the Daily News that she put the 2nd grader in her vehicle and sat there with here until Trooper Hoyt Smith arrived on scene and transferred the child into his police cruiser. The staff members followed the trooper back to the school and stated that Smith spoke with the child for a period of time, explaining to her why what she did was so wrong and how dangerous it was, and told her that nothing like this could ever happen again, to which the child is said to have agreed. The parents were then contacted.
“We have received an award in the past for being declared one of the safest schools in the state of Kentucky,” remarked Swiney. “We have had KSP Trooper Jim Nolte come several times and speak with our students about different scenarios that they need to be prepared for, and following the school shooting in Connecticut, we asked him to come back and do a walk through with us to help us identify areas that needed extra attention. After Trooper Smith left on Wednesday, Trooper Nolte came and spent a couple of hours here, speaking with all of our students about the dangers of leaving the building without permission. We’re grateful to him for all of his assistance.”
Swiney pointed out the surveillance camera located at the front entrance of the school and to the fact that no one can enter the building without permission, and said she is currently looking into expanding the cameras to include the other exterior doors to prevent anything like this from happening in the future. She has also placed what she described as large jingle bells on the classroom doors of the head start through 2nd grade classes, which will alert the teachers of anyone entering or exiting. Swiney further stated that the teachers would be locking the doors from the inside to cut the chances of a student exiting undetected.
“We are going the extra mile to protect our students. First and foremost, I want to emphasize that we immediately sprang into action the moment we realized the student was missing from the classroom. Learning from this, we will take every measure possible to assure this never happens again. We have precautions and plans in place to ensure the safety and welfare of all of our students.”
“I’ve been the secretary here for over 20 years and I can tell you with all honesty, nothing like this has ever happened before,” stated Harrison. “The parents that have children attending here know that their kids are our top concern. They always were – and they always will be.”
Swiney repeatedly told the Daily News that the child was never in the middle of the 4-lane, but Looney was adamant about where the child was when he first observed her on the roadway. Trooper Smith was not on duty on Friday, nor could Trooper Nolte be reached or the KSP Public Relations Officer, Trooper Shaun Little so their statements were not available. An interview with those who investigated this case will occur within the next few days and will be published for the public as soon as the information is obtained.
Pike County Superintendent Roger Wagner was contacted but did not wish to comment on the incident, and asked that we speak with the Bevins Principal since she had a first-hand account of what had occurred. He did say, however, that the safety of students was the top priority of all Board of Education staff members.