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Duluth teacher left two kindergartners locked outside school in January 2017

Bob King / Forum News Service

DULUTH—A kindergarten teacher neglected two Congdon Park Elementary students when she left them outside alone for nearly 20 minutes, according to the Minnesota Department of Education.

The state agency investigated a maltreatment complaint filed last school year.

According to the department's findings, the teacher brought her students outside on a late January morning in 2017 for extra recess. When the class lined up at the Superior Street door to go inside, it closed seconds before the last two students were able to enter. The school's security plan ensures only one door remains unlocked during the day, and it's on the other side of the building.

Video surveillance shows that the five-year-olds knocked repeatedly on the door. They eventually left the school's lawn and were found on the corner of Superior Street and Hawthorne Road by a parent leaving the school.

"The amount of things that could have gone terribly wrong is mind-boggling," said Bethany Hammond, mother to one of the children.

The report says the kids had decided to walk to the Hammonds' home — a mile away — to play with Legos when they couldn't get inside the school. The temperature that morning was in the 30s.

Hammond said the teacher called her that afternoon and told her that her son had disobeyed her in staying outside.

"She lied to me and tried to make it sound like he did this on purpose," Hammond said.

The report says that both students were in line with the others set to enter the building, according to video footage, and it's unclear whether the teacher knew the students remained outside because of her "conflicting statements."

It says that she wrote to the principal after the incident and said the students had stayed outside despite requests from her to come in. She couldn't retrieve them, she said, because she needed to supervise the rest of the class.

But she told the state investigator that she didn't know the students had remained outside.

"I was shocked. I was upset. ... I've never lost anyone like that out there," the teacher is quoted in the report, noting that the students had broken classroom rules by "leaving the group."

"Either (the teacher) did not follow procedures to call the office immediately when realizing the students did not come in with the group, or it took (her) 20 minutes once inside to notice (the students were gone), and only after (a school employee) brought the students back to class," the report says.

The report cites the teacher saying it's hard for one person to manage a class of 28 kindergarteners, and that other kindergarten sections at the school are of similar size.

While the number of students under her care is a valid concern, the investigator wrote, the teacher wasn't obligated to take her kids outside for an extra recess with no additional help, and a parent volunteer in the classroom when the students returned could have supervised the class.

The teacher was put on paid administrative leave shortly after the incident, and then more than a year later — this past February — was placed on unpaid leave. She was disciplined by the School Board at that time, but the nature of the discipline will not be disclosed until the matter is final. An arbitration hearing is scheduled for this month.

Forum News Service is not naming the teacher, who remains licensed to teach in Minnesota, because she is not named in the report.

Employed by the district since 1987, she had a salary of $72,926 and taught kindergarten and grade 2 throughout her career. She has been the subject of two complaints during her 30 years in Duluth schools and was not disciplined as a result of the first complaint.

The state education department doesn't have authority to dictate any action for the district to take based on its findings. The school did, however, add a staff member to assist with kindergarten classes as part of its own corrective action. Parents of both children said they were satisfied with the district's handling of the incident.

Of the 274 allegations investigated statewide by the education department last school year, maltreatment was found in 46 of them. Another 49 are pending.