Five employees who left special needs student at Wilmington park fired

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By Kathryn Jacewicz, Staff writer

The five Brunswick County Schools employees who left a special needs student behind at a Wilmington park last month have been fired.

South Brunswick High School employees Catherine Anderson, exceptional children’s (EC) teacher; Melanie Ashley, EC teacher; Nicholas Green, therapeutic assistant; Mable McKoy, EC teacher assistant/bus driver; and Morris Cook, Jr., therapeutic assistant, were terminated effectively immediately by the board of education Tuesday evening.

The board voted 4-1 to accept the personnel list, which included the termination of the five employees among other personnel changes, such as retirees, resignations and transfers.

Board member Scott Milligan cast the lone opposing vote, but would not specifically comment on what he opposed within the list.

“I opposed the personnel list because there were items in the list that I am not in agreement with,” he said.

Anderson, Ashley and Green have been employed by Brunswick County Schools since 2008. Cook was hired in 2005 and McKoy has been with the district since 1984. The five were suspended with pay on Thursday, April 25, after leaving 16-year-old Tad Speidell at Greenfield Lake Park earlier that afternoon.

According to Superintendent Katie McGee, the employees and about a dozen EC children had stopped at Greenfield Lake Park to eat lunch, and Tad was “inadvertently left behind.”

Tad’s full-time caregiver Michelle Cost said Tuesday evening she believes the five employees acted irresponsibly, and supports the board’s decision to terminate all five contracts.

“I hate for people to lose their jobs, I do. I don’t like that but five people left him. It wasn’t one person, it was five adults,” she said. “[Losing Tad] is my biggest fear. That’s why I hold his hand. That's why I keep a hold of him.”

Cost said she also thinks the administration needs to be reviewed, as they were the ones who hired the five individuals.

“In a way, they need to be looking into higher up. I don’t think the buck just stops at those five people,” she said. “I’m pretty sure my employer knows who she’s hiring. School is supposed to be their safe place away from home. If you can’t send them to school, that’s it. Where else are you going to send them? I think they need to be a little more diligent.”

Cost said Tad was out of school for six days following the incident, but seems to be adjusting to the new classroom teachers. The class is continuing to go on outings, she said, but Tad has not been on a trip since the incident. Cost said she would not go on any more field trips unless she goes along as his personal chaperone.

Tad’s mother Pamala Speidell-Arnold and Cost said Tad and the class were supposed to be visiting Coastal Community Barns in Wilmington for therapeutic horseback riding. A copy of the field trip permission slip provided to the Beacon did not mention a stop at Greenfield Lake Park.

Cost said she was also informed the board of education is investigating why the class made an unapproved stop at Greenfield Lake Park.

A woman at the park saw the group board the bus without Tad and called 911 at 2:04 p.m., according to the 911 call’s timestamp.

“There’s a little boy who [was] with a group of people on a bus…the bus left him here,” the caller said. “We’re right by the lake. We are where the big park area…right by the lake. The lake is right here.”

Tad, who has limited speech due to global brain damage and is diagnosed as severely mentally retarded, was not able to communicate his name or who he was with.

A Wilmington police officer responded to the scene and took Tad into his custody and called Wilmington schools to see if any were missing a child, according to Lucy Crockett, spokesperson for the Wilmington Police Department.

Back in Brunswick County, Cost waited for Tad to get off the school bus. When the bus did not arrive 20 minutes after its normal drop-off time, Cost said she called McKoy, the bus driver, around 3:45 p.m. to see where Tad was.

Cost alleges McKoy initially told her Tad had run off at the park and they couldn’t find him. Cost said McKoy later changed the story to say she had last seen Tad at the park with another teacher.

“My heart dropped to my stomach when they said Tad was lost,” Cost previously said in an interview following the incident. “I don’t want to ever have that feeling again. And to not have that feeling again, he’s just not going to be going on any more field trips.”

Cost and Speidell-Arnold said no one on the bus noticed Tad was missing until another special needs student asked where he was—after the bus arrived back at South Brunswick High School.

The Wilmington police later received a call from Brunswick County Schools, asking if Tad was in their custody. The Wilmington Police Department eventually released Tad to Brunswick County school officials, who dropped off him at his normal bus stop around 6 p.m. that evening.

Cost and Speidell-Arnold said school officials never contacted either of them until around 6:15 p.m. Speidell-Arnold says she was never informed of Tad being missing by any school officials.