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How 2 Salt Lake County school districts responded to attempted kidnappings

Students leave Liberty Elementary School in Salt Lake City with their parents and teachers after the end of the school day on Monday, May 1, 2023.
Martha Harris
Students leave Liberty Elementary School in Salt Lake City with their parents and teachers after the end of the school day on Monday, May 1, 2023.

Within the last month, two different Salt Lake County elementary school communities have experienced attempted kidnappings. The school districts took different approaches to discussing the incident with students, but both are encouraging parents to talk with their kids about how to stay safe.

On April 25 in Salt Lake City, a man in a truck attempted to kidnap a 12-year-old Liberty Elementary student as she was walking to school, according to Salt Lake City Police. The student then ran to school and reported what happened. Police arrested a 53-year-old suspect later that same day.

On April 6 at Whittier Elementary in West Valley City, a third-grade student checked in with her parent in the pick-up and drop-off area at the end of the school day. Granite School District spokesperson Ben Horsley said the student then went back to the school building to find one of her siblings.

The attempted kidnapping suspect approached the girl and started dragging her away, according to police. Horsley said the student screamed and fought. An adult supervisor came over to see what was happening and the suspect fled. On April 8, police detained a 16-year-old suspect.

Horsley is not sure if more adult supervision would have prevented it from happening since the student’s parent was only about 60 yards away and a staff member quickly responded to what was happening.

“If the attack had prolonged, it’s clear the adult would have been able to intervene. And so we’re very grateful for that,” Horsley said.

Moving forward, Horsley said Granite is making sure that staff understands what to look out for when they’re supervising and what they can do if they notice something suspicious.

“Unfortunately we do see these [incidents] more often off of school property,” Horsley said.

The district also sent out information to parents about what happened and how they can help their students stay safe, like walking in groups instead of by themselves and not talking to or acknowledging strangers. All students were also told general safety information, and staff were available to meet one-on-one with students who had concerns or questions.

Otherwise, communication from the school to students has been minimal, Horsley said. That’s for several reasons, including to protect the identity of the student who was attacked and because it was an unusual situation.

He said it’s a balance between giving students enough information so they’re safe, but not scaring them unnecessarily.

“We ask parents to communicate with their kids. Oftentimes those conversations are a little more well-founded, not in a classroom setting, but in a home setting with a parent,” Horsley said. “But we do need to remind kids on a regular basis, know and understand who trusted adults are. And whenever you don't feel safe, you need to tell somebody.”

Unlike the incident at Whittier Elementary, the attempted kidnapping of a Liberty Elementary student happened off school property. The next day, Salt Lake City School District spokesperson Yándary Chatwin said it sent a crisis response team of counselors to the school to be available to students, and teachers were given a script.

“That way students would be able to get the same information, just facts, kill misinformation out there and students would be able to know what resources we had available to them,” Chatwin said.

Even when things happen outside of school, Chatwin said they still impact students at school.

Some parents felt there was a lack of communication from Salt Lake City Schools about what happened. While the incident happened in the morning, the district did not send information out to parents until that evening.

Chatwin said the police department had instructed the district to hold off on sharing information until they gave the green light since it was an active investigation.

Like Granite, Salt Lake City Schools also sent information out to parents, Chatwin said, so that they knew what resources were available and also encouraged parents to talk with their kids.

“One of the reasons that this suspect was able to be caught so quickly is because the child, shortly after getting to school, let a trusted adult know what happened. So we’re encouraging parents to continue having those conversations and we'll support in the ways that we can at school,” Chatwin said.

Martha is KUER’s education reporter.
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