Zoe Elias was playing with her fellow kindergarteners on the playground at Short Pump Elementary School on a balmy Nov. 30. Then she disappeared.
It was a brief disappearance but one that nonetheless shook Zoe's parents, Heather and Scott Elias.
Their daughter, age 5, is autistic, and her communication skills have been regressing of late, the Eliases say. And her school is wedged between a busy intersection Pump Road and West Broad Street. After wandering off, Zoe was found moments later by a custodial worker trying to get into a side door to the school, next to the Dumpsters.
"It was a miracle that that custodian saw her," Heather Elias says. "They were still looking for her on the playground. She was literally in danger."
Initially, school officials told the Eliases that Zoe, who was assigned one-on-one supervision by a faculty aide, had been missing for between five and seven minutes. But in an amended incident report completed a day later, Short Pump Elementary Principal Laura Condon wrote that she'd determined Zoe had been without adult supervision for about "30 seconds."
Through a school spokesperson, Henrico County Schools Superintendent Fred S. Morton IV says the school "acted appropriately in this case." Morton, who met with the parents shortly after the incident, declines to comment further.
The Eliases, however, have pulled their daughter out of the school and hired an attorney. They want the county to pick up the tab for Zoe's education at a private institution, the Dominion School for Autism on Monument Avenue, which costs $34,000 a year, Heather Elias says.
Recent case law swings in the Eliases' favor. Twice in the past six months, U.S. District Judge Robert E. Payne has forced local school systems to reimburse parents of autistic children for private-school tuition. Some in the legal community consider the two cases involving autistic children, 8 and 12, who the judge agreed didn't receive an adequate education from Hanover and Henrico counties, respectively precedent-setting.
In the past, judges tended to side with school systems in such cases.
It wasn't the first time the Eliases have had issues with Zoe's education. She's been attending county schools for several years, including the pre-K program, and this year she has regressed academically, Heather Elias says.
"Academically, she's not doing well at all," she says. "And now she's not safe." The family is expected to meet with county officials to discuss the matter this week. S