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Danger on the Way to School?

Twice, last Monday, while a 9-year-old boy walked to school at Deer Park Elementary, an unknown woman in a green SUV tried to pick him up in her car.

He knew enough not to comply, so the stranger was unsuccessful. And just as he'd been taught, he told his teacher about it, as soon as he got to school. But the teacher didn't inform the school office, and the boy's parents didn't learn about the incident until the mother of an older boy — who'd witnessed the occurrence — called and told them.

Now, more than a week later, the school hasn't sent home a letter about it to other parents — nor does it plan to. Police believe the woman was just lost and intended the child no harm, but his family isn't buying it and believes other parents should be alerted to a potential danger in their neighborhood.

"Are there any other incidents that the school doesn't feel are worthy of telling us about?" asked the boy's grandmother, Cynthia Keefer. "How many other situations like this have been shoved under the rug?"

Principal Doug Brooks says he's more than willing to issue such letters when they're warranted. But in these matters, he receives direction from the Fairfax County school system's Office of Community Relations and the county police department's Public Information Office.

"We don't put out letters until the police tell us to," he said. "The police have investigated this fully and don't feel this is a situation that warrants a backpack letter."

AND THAT'S what the boy's mother, Tamara Thomas of Centreville's Chalet Woods community, finds so disturbing — especially in light of what happened. (Her son has a different last name, and Centre View is protecting his identity because he's an alleged victim). "Why can't they issue a flyer to warn parents?" she asked. "From a mother's point of view, I feel other parents need to know about it."

Her son, a Deer Park fourth-grader, was walking on Kamputa Drive, just past Claret Place, May 10, around 8 a.m., when the woman approached him in her car.

"She pulled up and asked him if he wanted a ride to school," said Thomas. "As he had been taught, he responded, 'No, thanks.' Then she drove up the street a little ways and stopped and waited for him to catch up to her. This time, she said, 'Can you just get in the car and show me where Deer Park is?'" Again, the boy declined.

Afterward, said his mom, a fifth-grade boy walking behind him asked her son what the person in the car had said to him. But when they got to school, the older boy didn't tell his teacher about it because Thomas' son said he was going to tell his own teacher.

However, when he did so, she did nothing about it. "She was a first-year teacher who didn't know what to do," said Brooks. "And she didn't have a break to come to the office." Still, wondered Keefer, "Why didn't the teacher send anyone to the front office to tell someone?"

And the incident, itself, was unnerving, said Thomas, because — if the woman truly was lost and needed directions — why didn't she seek help from the adult, uniformed crossing guard some 100 yards away, at the intersection of Kamputa and Cranoke Street?

After hearing about it from the older boy's mother, Thomas called the school, and School Resource Officer Amy Chambers then contacted Thomas' husband at home. "We called the police immediately, as soon as we heard," said Brooks. An officer from the Sully District Police Station later took a report from the boy.

SCHOOL SYSTEM spokeswoman Kitty Porterfield says the police Public Information Office and the school system work closely together. But in these matters, she said, "I don't see the police report. We ask [the police] whether we should issue a letter, or not. And, over time, this system has stood us in good stead and prevented us from making mistakes that would have jeopardized a police investigation."

In this case, explained police spokeswoman Mary Mulrenan, "An investigation was done, and it was the officer's contention that the woman was actually just looking for directions to the school, and she had another child in the car. We did send officers to look for the vehicle, but they didn't find it."

She said there wasn't any criminal activity on the part of the driver, and the officer believed the boy's mother was satisfied with the police response. Said Mulrenan: "Offering a child a ride is inappropriate, in this day and age, but the investigating officer didn't think she had any malicious intent."

Nonetheless, twice this school year, police and the school system have notified the public when males in vehicles followed and tried to pick up children in the Deer Park/Stone Middle School vicinity. So Thomas can't help but wonder if the authorities would have alerted parents "if a man in an SUV had asked a little girl if she wanted a ride to school, then again tried to entice her to get in the car on the pretext of showing him how to get to the school."

"Does it seem less threatening that it was a woman in the SUV?" she asked. "What if the 'woman' was a man wearing a woman's wig?"

Naturally, said Keefer, the child's family is both scared and alarmed. But, she stressed, "We're not trying to put people in a panic. We just want to be notified so we can talk to our children when something like this happens. We're just saying, 'Hey, this incident happened; why is the school system pooh-poohing it?'"

Thomas says she'd feel terrible if she didn't try to do something about this and then "something happened to another child because of this woman." As it is, she said, "Had that fifth-grader not been there to witness it, my son might not be here today. Does a child have to disappear before a flyer goes home? By then, it's too late."