Mother blames child’s heat exhaustion on lack of safety protocols at St. John Preschool in Lawrence

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A local mother is demanding “corrective action” at a Lawrence preschool after her child suffered heat exhaustion. The mom said the child’s emergency room diagnosis came as a result of care received at St. John Preschool, 1244 Kentucky St.

We agreed to not name the mother and child in order to protect their privacy.

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Medical records show the preschooler visited the ER at Lawrence Memorial Hospital on Tuesday, Aug. 24, and left with a diagnosis of excessive heat exposure. Earlier that afternoon, the mother said she picked them up from preschool around 2:45 p.m. after receiving a call 40 minutes earlier informing her the child had fallen ill.

The mom said on Tuesday that she “automatically knew” something was wrong when she saw the youngster sleeping on a table on the porch outside the school’s front door. She said the child’s face looked red and sweaty, and their body felt “hot to the touch.” The mother said she questioned one of the teachers, who stood in the open doorway, on a number of fronts: Why the child was waiting outside, how long they’d spent outdoors that afternoon and why the school had taken students outside during an excessive heat advisory.

The mom said the teacher told her the preschool did not have a “holding place for sick children,” and their symptoms were fever, headache, coughing and flushed skin color. The teacher recommended getting tested for COVID-19 and not returning to school until after symptoms had cleared, the mom said.

Within minutes of leaving with the preschooler, the mother said she’d made an appointment with a pediatrician. But before the appointment time arrived, the child began vomiting, and they quickly made their way to the ER at the recommendation of the pediatrician’s nurse.

The mom said her child received intravenous fluids for dehydration, medication for nausea and headache pain, and a nasal swab test for COVID-19, which came back negative. Describing it as a traumatic experience, it took four adults to restrain the youngster for placement of the IV, she said.

Search for answers

Two days after the incident, the mother said she met with St. John Principal Chris Reffett and two preschool teachers. Looking for answers from the school, the mom said she was accompanied to the in-person meeting with a coworker who offered support. The child’s uncle, who pays school tuition, also attended the meeting by phone.

From the mom’s perspective, the meeting was full of “empty answers” and unaccountability. She said nobody “took ownership of what happened” or proposed ways to “get past this.” She described feeling sad and disappointed about the situation.

“I think that meeting could have gone completely different had it started with a little bit of compassion. I understand people make mistakes. I feel like I’m a God-fearing woman and I’m 100% all about forgiveness, but I hit this point where I was like, ‘I can’t.’ Maybe one day, but I don’t think I can because that meeting was so cold and rude,” she said.

The mother, who has worked in the early education field for more than two years at a Lawrence nonprofit, said her experience had shown her toddlers and preschoolers have to be prompted to take breaks and drink water in hot weather. She said she received a range of answers from the school on how long her child had spent outside that afternoon — anywhere from 15 minutes to 25 — with temperatures reaching 96 degrees, according to the National Weather Service’s past temperature records.

She said community members she’d shared the story with were also alarmed, and she felt the need to warn parents about the experience.

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“I was told 1) you can’t go against the Catholic Church, and 2) nothing’s going to happen. If that’s the case, then everyone who takes their child there needs to know what dangers they’re going up against. I feel fortunate enough because of my job that I know what’s appropriate, what’s dangerous and what’s not. Some people dropping their kids off probably aren’t even thinking, ‘This is a heat advisory. Tell me approximately how long you’re going to be outside.’”

Calling the preschool’s protocols for caring for sick children and outside activities during heat warnings “dangerous” and run like the “Wild West,” she said she never received an explanation as to why her child was made to wait for her outside in the heat after exhibiting “obvious signs” of heat exhaustion. She questioned why the child couldn’t have waited with an adult in the nurse’s office or another indoor location. She said she was told the porch’s front door was kept open to allow cool air to flow outside onto the child and that the school would review its policies.

Working in the education field, the mother said she understood the challenges COVID-19 had presented for schools, but nearly a year and a half into the pandemic, it was unacceptable to still not have a designated sick area for preschoolers, especially with numerous meeting rooms and offices inside the K-8 school and St. John the Evangelist Catholic Parish next door.

The Times reached out to Reffett and the Archidiocese of Kansas City in Kansas via detailed emails asking questions about the mother’s story and the school’s policies.

Superintendent of Schools Vince Cascone responded in an email, “The school office of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas is investigating an incident at St. John School and will talk to all parties involved. The safety of the children in each of our schools is our utmost concern. Until we conclude our investigation we cannot comment any further.”

A question of race?

The young mother said the more she pondered her child’s experience, the angrier she felt.

“I don’t have any answers for why,” she said. “There’s no explanation, and then your mind starts to go to a dark place. Is it a racism thing? Is it because I have a child out of wedlock? … You start to go in these dark places. I have no explanation for it.”

The mother said her child is multiracial and worries that her own skin color — which is darker than theirs — could have influenced the treatment the preschooler received.

“I really hope that’s not what it is,” she said. “I’ve never been the person who’s always pulling that card. When there’s no other explanation, it’s kind of …” she trailed off.

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Future plans

As for any long-term effects her young child might suffer, the mom said an ER physician and those with experience in heat exhaustion told her to monitor the child, provide plenty of fluids and be extra careful for the rest of the summer.

“They said (they’ll) be prone to heat exhaustion now because once you get it, you’re always really prone to it,” she said.

She said she’s looking for the school to put stronger procedures in place for handling illnesses and for training teachers in preventing and recognizing heat exhaustion. She also filed a report with the Kansas Department of Children and Families, she said.

“Corrective action, I think, would be nice,” she said, adding she also expected the school to pay the child’s ER bill. “I can’t really afford that, and I told them that I’m not paying that.”

For now, a mother’s dreams for her child have been delayed, and she’ll need to formulate a new plan for their education.

“I’ve known a lot of people who attended St. John and then went to high school. Those kids were always about two grades ahead (academically) — always,” the mother said, noting she grew up in Lawrence.

“I’m a single mom and I work at a nonprofit,” she said. “Education is really important in our family and I really wanted (them) to go there, so all this is really disappointing for me and all my family members.”

When asked if she might give the school another chance, the mother responded with a stern look of resolve.

“No way, absolutely not,” she said. “(They’re) never going back.”

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