Teachers suspended after unsupervised toddlers escape preschool, wander into traffic

PHOENIX – Seven toddlers, some possibly as young as 18 months, wandered away from a Gilbert preschool and into traffic Friday morning, prompting motorists to hit their brakes and round them up.

Samantha Crouch told The Arizona Republic she was driving northbound on Val Vista Drive when she noticed cars stopping and honking their horns.

When she looked out her window, she noticed two toddlers on the street. One of them was using a yellow push toy, she said.

The children had escaped out a gate at the Little Sunshine's Playhouse & Preschool in Gilbert.

Crouch posted on a Gilbert-based Facebook group that she came "very, very close" to hitting the two toddlers, whom she estimated were about 18 months old.

"We're talking screeching tires and honking horns," Crouch wrote.

There was also a group of children on the sidewalk but "absolutely no adult outside at the time," she said.

She and two other drivers got out of their vehicles and ushered the children to safety.

Gilbert police were investigating on Oct. 4, 2019, how several children left Little Sunshine's Playhouse and Preschool of Gilbert and wandered unsupervised on the street.
Gilbert police were investigating on Oct. 4, 2019, how several children left Little Sunshine's Playhouse and Preschool of Gilbert and wandered unsupervised on the street.

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When Crouch spoke to a staff member, she said, they told her that they didn't know the children were missing and that the campus's gate latch is "confusing."

"They didn't even know the kids were gone until I pounded on the lobby door screaming," she wrote.

Crouch is the mother of a 22-month-old child and said the incident left her "terrified."

"It made me sick to my stomach," she said. "I immediately called my kid's day care saying: 'Hey, is everything going OK? Just give them an extra hug for me.'"

She said she was relieved that none of the children got hit or otherwise injured in the incident.

"People were paying attention – thank goodness no one was texting and driving," she said.

Gilbert Police spokesman Sgt. Mark Marino said police were investigating the incident, which happened at around 9:45 a.m. and was the result of a "structural failure" with the school's gate.

Seven kids were pushing against the gate latch and it broke, allowing them to walk out and off campus, Marino said.

He said the gate was out of the view of the adults watching that particular outdoor play area. Two of the children made their way to a bike lane in the street, Marino said.

"Fortunately, motorists being aware stopped and were able to wrangle the kids," he said.

In an email to The Republic on Friday, the school said the situation was "immediately" brought to staff attention and no children were injured.

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"As soon as we learned of the incident, we immediately contacted the parents of the students involved, suspended the teachers pending a full investigation, and self-reported to the state of Arizona childcare licensing," the email said. "We are taking this incident very seriously as the safety of each of our students is our top priority."

The school said in an email to parents Friday that it completed a perimeter check of the school, including the fence and gate, which ultimately led them to agree with the Gilbert Police Department's conclusion that the gate had failed. The issue has since been fixed, and the gate and its double latch system are now working correctly, the school added.

Additionally, the school told parents it purchased and will soon install a gate alarm system that gives off "a loud audible alarm" every time the gate is opened. Children will not be allowed on the playground until the alarm is installed, the school said.

No charges had been filed against the preschool as of Friday afternoon.

The private preschool was named the "Most Loved Preschool" of 2019 by HulaFrog, a company that provides local resources and activities for parents.

The company is based in Missouri and has about 30 locations around the country.

According to its website, preschools are evaluated remotely by a team of quality assurance professionals in Missouri and onsite by independent secret shoppers, parent and staff surveys and leadership visits.

The evaluations cover a range of topics including safety and security, the website said.

It also said entrance to the campuses are secured "throughout the day" and that families have to enter a numeric pass-code on a keypad to enter the building.

Child release policies are "strictly enforced for every child's protection," the website said.

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Follow BrieAnna J. Frank on Twitter @brieannafrank.

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Teachers suspended after unsupervised toddlers wander into traffic