We have an obligation, once a child is in our school, to do everything we can to keep the child safe. —Chris Williams, Davis School District spokesman
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.
"Would anything have happened to the children? I don't know. Maybe not. But this parent didn't have the right to take this child out of the school, and the principal did everything she could to not let her do that," he said.
At Canyons District schools, employees are trained to ask questions when people they're unfamiliar with enter the school.
"If someone walks in the front door, they're supposed to go to the office," district spokesman Jeff Haney said. "If people don't do that, it raises a red flag for most everybody in the school. We've encouraged our folks to approach them and ask them to go to the office."
If something isn't right, employees are encouraged to "restrain (the person) verbally," Haney said.
"We don't want (employees) to get hurt, and we don't want the children to get hurt," he said. "We tell our employees to do what you can without it resorting to a physical altercation to keep the person in the school or near the school."
The Salt Lake City School District has a similar unwritten policy, spokesman Jason Olsen said.
"We ask our employees to focus on the safety of the students and themselves," Olsen said. "The employee can assess the situation better than anybody else."
Friday's incident at Silver Hills Elementary was unique, Horsley said, because Aliyah happened to be in the main hallway waiting to enter the cafeteria when her mother entered though the front doors — roughly 40 yards away.
"It happened within 45 seconds," he said. "The daughter just happened to be right there near the front entry."
If the girl had been in the cafeteria, Barker would have had to sort through between 200 and 300 children to find her daughter. If the girl had been there, in a classroom or even on the playground, "I can say with some certainty the child never would have gotten off school property," Horsley said.
In that case, the school likely would have been put on lock down, he said.
Barker's entrance to the school immediately caught the attention of a school secretary, who was aware there was a custody issue involving the girl, Horsley said. Employees also are trained to make sure anyone who enters the school check in first in the office.
The secretary followed Barker as she walked up the hall, pulled Aliyah out of line and started back toward the front entrance.
The girl's fourth-grade teacher intervened, Horsley said, asking the woman if she'd checked the girl out of school. The woman already was making her way to the exit when she answered that she had checked her daughter out of school, Horsley said.
The secretary who had been following the woman corrected Barker and told her she needed to go into the office before leaving the school. Instead of complying, the woman handed the secretary an envelope of what she said were legal documents and continued on her way.
"They ended up being some papers saying, 'I have rights to this child,'" Horsley said. "There was nothing legal about them in any way, shape or form. They were just some statements."
The teacher then attempted to block Barker from leaving, he said.
"(Barker) literally elbows her way past the teacher," Horsley said.
The secretary, seeing that the woman was going to leave with the girl, went back into the office and called police.
Granite officials said they plan to work with law enforcement to determine if there's anything else that can be done to prevent such incidents in the future.2 comments on this story
Access to Granite schools already has been restricted to one door — usually nearest the office, Horsley said.
The district also has added surveillance cameras to its secondary schools and is in the process of installing them at the elementary schools. So far, they've been installed in eight of the 62 elementary schools in the district, though Silver Hills is not one of them.
"We're trying to get them installed as quickly as possible," Horsley said. "That would be an additional security measure."