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CNHI/Southeast Iowa

March 21, 2013

Eddyville school leaders reassure students of safety

Man in minivan approached students during recess, inviting them to see puppies

EDDYVILLE — An attempt at enticing children into a minivan happened so quickly that teachers overseeing recess didn’t even notice, but it spooked four boys enough for them to report it.

During recess Tuesday, four Eddyville Elementary fourth-grade boys ran to their teachers, saying a man in a white minivan had invited them to go with him to see some puppies.

Joellen Breon, Fremont principal and district curriculum director, was on her way to Eddyville Elementary when she got the call.

The four boys said the man had slowed down on the road outside the school and “encouraged them to go with him to see some puppies or buy some puppies.”

“There were teachers nearby, however, it happened very, very quick,” Breon said. “From the description, it was not even a complete stop. He was talking as he was driving by. It wasn’t like a long conversation. They immediately went to the nearest teacher.”

Three teachers were supervising approximately 40 children at recess during late afternoon Tuesday, said Eddyville Elementary Principal Chris Fenster, and followed the district’s procedure of reporting the incident.

“The teachers felt confident that the four boys were all telling the same story and were very factual,” Breon said.

The chain-link fence that separated the boys from the minivan is 4 feet tall, Breon said, so teachers would have noticed if children were attempting to leave school grounds.

“It would have been very, very, very difficult to get out of there,” she said. “Not only our teachers, but we also have a custodian who is always keeping an eye on kids, no matter what they’re doing. He was not far from everything either. Our goal is to try to keep all students safe and reassure them today [Wednesday].”

Responding law enforcement, the Wapello and Mahaska County Sheriff’s Departments, agreed. The deputies interviewed the boys and also came to the conclusion that they were telling the truth.

“At that point we were verifying some facts at the same time as dismissal,” Breon said. “We had all of our staff members out making sure everyone was dismissed safely.”

Staff sent home information about the incident to parents and immediately put a letter on the district website once facts were verified.

Eddyville-Blakesburg-Fremont Superintendent Dean Cook said a lot of the credit goes to the two responding sheriff departments, who both had deputies present at the school Wednesday morning.

“I can’t commend them enough,” Cook said. “You think about these rural areas and you get concerned, but we’ve got people who are really good in their jobs. We’re in a little bit unique situation because we get the opportunity to work with both, because the elementary in Eddyville is split right in half by the counties. Half sits in Mahaska; half sits in Wapello. We’re lucky because we get both Mahaska and Wapello. We get double duty.”

The discussion between the two sheriff’s department’s and district staff Tuesday night was how to handle the school day Wednesday and to see if any changes needed to be made to the safety plan. Cook said the teachers handled the situation according to procedure and no additions were made to the plan.

“You want to keep this as normal as possible, but at the same token have everyone on high alert,” Cook said. “You’ve got to be careful. We don’t want to stop every van that drives by, but ... we want to make sure we’re taking this seriously.”

Each teacher has a walkie talkie when they’re supervising recess.

“The most important thing is getting it reported right away and investigating it,” Breon said. “First it’s reported to the office, then we start to investigate if it’s factual or not.”

The rule is if your students go outside, you go outside. Teachers are also always present in the hallways to be “vigilant and visible,” she said.

Wednesday morning, teachers were out on school grounds and in the building, making sure everyone arrived safely, she said.

“Hopefully we’ll get to the bottom of this,” she said. “First and foremost, we have everyone keeping an eye out for all the students and we are working with both sheriff offices. As information comes to us, we’ll definitely let parents know. We’ll post it on the website and send information home.”

The boys said they saw a white minivan with a gold stripe containing at least one white male. No one exited the vehicle, and it did not cross onto school property. The boys were on school property and were safe at all times.

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The Iowegian wants readers to think about the solicitation ordinance that will prevent groups or individuals from entering a roadway to solicit money. The Centerville City Council in June by a 5-0 vote passed the first reading of just such an ordinance. Public pressure and during a subsequent special meeting, the council voted 3-2 to table the ordinance. A second special meeting to discuss the solicitation ordinance is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 7 at City Hall. So, the question of the week is, "Do you or do you not support the ordinance to prevent solicitation of funds in city streets?"

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