Utah school districts' policy: keep kids safe

Published: Monday, March 12 2012 9:00 p.m. MDT

Granite School District Communications Director Ben Horsley points out a sign directing all visitors to check in at Silver Hills Elementary School in West Valley City on Friday, March 9, 2012. 10-year-old Aliyah Kay Crowder was taken from school by her biological mother, who does not have legal custody.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

WEST VALLEY CITY — It happens nearly every day: A parent wanders the hallway of a school looking for their child.

"It's an ongoing issue," said Benjamin Horsley, spokesman for the Granite School District. "They think they're just slipping in for a minute, just taking something to Johnny in his classroom. They don't think they need to check in."

At Silver Hills Elementary, like schools throughout the district, signs are posted on the front doors to inform all visitors they're required to check in at the front office. Other signs with the same message are posted in school hallways.

"The procedure is there to keep kids safe, and it's important that parents follow that procedure," Horsley said.

Police and school district officials said Venus Athena Barker had no intention of checking her 10-year-old daughter out of school Friday because she had no legal right to do so.

Instead, Barker brazenly walked into Silver Hills Elementary about noon, spotted Aliyah Kay Crowder roughly 40 yards down the hallway, grabbed her and "somewhat forcefully" pulled the girl back out the doors, Horsley said.

"It's obvious that her actions were fairly precise, that she intended to bully her way out of that school," he said.

The incident sparked what Aliyah's custodial parents called "a distressing 14-hour period" that included the West Valley City Police Department issuing an Amber Alert. Police located Barker in northern Utah about midnight Friday, and by 2 a.m. Aliyah was safely home with her father, Michael Varner.

Horsley said the girl's abduction "took an emotional toll on the entire school staff," particularly the teacher and secretary who attempted to stop the abduction.

"Our preliminary assessment of this situation is that the school staff handled this situation appropriately and did everything they could to protect the child and follow procedures," he said Monday.

Granite employees "are not authorized to engage people physically," Horsley said, but they're also not prohibited from doing so when necessary to protect a student.

"We expect our employees to do everything within their power to keep kids safe," he said. "We've had situations where individuals are restrained, where force is exerted to help keep kids safe."

That appears to be the standard at Utah school districts: Do what you can safely do to protect the children.

"We have an obligation, once a child is in our school, to do everything we can to keep the child safe," said Chris Williams, Davis School District spokesman.

Just days prior to the incident at Silver Hills Elementary, there was a similar occurrence at an elementary school in the Davis District, Williams said.

In that case, the biological mother of two students went into the office about five minutes before the end of school to check out the children.

"The principal knew enough about the situation to know she was not the custodial parent," Williams said.

When the principal told the woman she wouldn't be able to take the children, the woman grabbed a volunteer badge and headed down the hallway to her kids' classrooms, he said.

The principal followed the woman and ultimately was able to talk to the older child, who told her she didn't want to go with her mother. The principal was able to delay the woman from leaving by leading the older child into a restroom in the office and telling her to lock the door.

Police arrived, the woman was cited for trespassing, and the children went home safely, Williams said.

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