‘The ball was dropped’: Mom speaks out after 9-year-old walks away from school, claims nobody called parents

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JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — A Johnson City mother of four spoke out Thursday after she said “the ball was dropped” by Mountain View Elementary School staff when her 9-year-old daughter was able to walk off school property and was allegedly unaccounted for nearly 30 minutes.

Crystal Garland told News Channel 11 that on Monday at 3:40 p.m. when she and her fiance expected three of their kids to disembark their school bus, only two got off.

“My younger daughter and my younger son — which Elena is 6, and Geremiah is 8 — came running up to the car after they got off the bus screaming, crying, saying ‘Mommy, Mommy, Mommy! Rose walked off from the school; cops have surrounded her.’ I mean, that’s not something you want to hear from small children,” Garland said.

She said she was initially confused by the young children’s hysterics and walked down the road, thinking her 9-year-old, Rose, had simply walked from the bus. To her horror, the kids informed her that their oldest sibling was still near the school after walking away from the property. She had never made it onto the bus.

Garland immediately loaded her two elementary school-aged kids, along with her 7-month-old, in her car and they left for the school.

During the short car ride, Garland recalls speaking on the phone with a friendly receptionist at the school who transferred her call to the assistant principal of Mountain View Elementary School.

She said the assistant principal informed Garland that her daughter had, in fact, left the school property and had been located by a police officer who then brought her back to the school.

“At this time it was 3:40 p.m. when I had called the school. And so I asked the assistant principal — I said, ‘Why has no one notified me, her father, her biological mother, her stepfather, anyone? No one was notified at this point. And she said, ‘well, this all just happened at dismissal,'” Garland recalled.

“Now, mind you, school dismisses at 3:15 p.m., and I was not aware until 3:40 p.m. when my children got off the bus to tell me — that’s almost 30 minutes unaccounted time. Anything could have happened to this child, you know, anything. She could have been kidnapped, she could have been hit by a car. Luckily, she is safe and we know where she’s at. But the possibilities are endless, and it shouldn’t ever happened to begin with,” a distraught Garland told News Channel 11.

She explained that Rose, the third-grader, had left the school on King Springs Road, walked past the intersection with Milligan Highway and Legion Street, walked down Legion Street beyond the Tweetsie Trail entrance.

“She was trying to walk to her mother’s house which is opposite of where we live, because we share 50-50 custody so she’s with her mom and with us. But, you know, what are you supposed to do?” Garland said.

It was near the Tweetsie Trail entrance that Rose was reportedly spotted by the man who drives her school bus every day, as he happened to drive past her in the bus in which she was supposed to be.

“He called it in to his supervisor, who then in return called the school and said, ‘Hey, you have a child who is walking by themselves,’ and this day she wasn’t hard to miss — she was wearing a very vibrant pink long-sleeve shirt with a big old silver unicorn on it. So, you can’t miss a child like that, you know. And once that call came into the school, that’s when they should have notified any adult — any adult — but they didn’t,” Garland said.

In a statement to News Channel 11, Rose’s biological mom, Aleesha Dawson Culler, confirmed that she has shared custody with Garland and Rose’s biological father.

Culler said she received no calls from the school but that it was Garland who informed her that her daughter had attempted to walk to her house instead of riding the bus and going home to her stepmother’s house like she was supposed to.

Garland said she could not thank that bus driver enough, shuddering at the thought of what might have happened, had he not spotted the little girl.

“It almost makes me want to break down in tears because what if that would have been the last day I saw my child? What if that would have been the last day, her biological mother and her stepfather, or her father had seen her? You know, you don’t think that sending your children to school for their education that you’re never going to see them again or you know, what about the other parents who are sending their children to school who don’t know that that quickly the ball can be dropped,” she said.

She admitted that Rose knew better than to just walk away from the school, but that it was up to the adults present to prevent such a thing from happening in the first place.

Now, a mother on a mission to stop this from happening ever again, Garland hopes the school district will revise its safety and surveillance protocols, as well as improve communication with parents.

“I’m not completely satisfied with knowing that all three of my children are completely safe every single day now because this has happened,” she said.

“It’s not just Rose, you know I knew Rose had a bad day, they sent her off by herself, and then she got away. And then as soon as the call from Johnson City Transit came to the school and was like, ‘Hey, you know there’s a child walking and it is Rose Culler,’ because her bus driver noticed her, why did no one call then? There are multiple adults in that office. That’s when the call should have been made, but the call was never made. I was the one who had to call the school.”

Her message to the school district: “do better.”

Garland had a message to other parents with children in the Johnson City school system: “Please don’t be afraid to call the school at any point in time, ‘is my child in the class?’ Call at dismissal, you know, make sure your child is where they need to be.”

She also said she would not let this go. She told News Channel 11 that she has contacted multiple attornies and that she hopes action is taken to prevent this from happening to anyone’s children.

“Something needs to be put in place to ensure not only elementary students, middle school students, high schools, I mean, every Johnson City school needs to know that I’m not going to stop until I can ensure the safety of all of these children,” she said.

According to a statement from the Johnson City School System:

“The Mountain View administration acted quickly by following their safety protocols as soon as they became aware of the missing student. The student was located by staff, returned to school and the guardian was notified of the incident. We are confident in the safety measures at our schools, but we are continually assessing all of our safety procedures for any potential gaps.”

Johnson City Schools

News Channel 11 reached out to the City of Johnson City for comment regarding the bus driver spotting Rose, as well as the school resource officer allegedly picking her up and taking her back to school where she was collected by her parents.

Johnson City police said “there’s no law enforcement involvement on that instance, so no report from us,” and that the incident was handled solely by the school system.

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