Seven-year-old Samaya Dillard wandered across major intersections, over a freeway and through a Natomas shopping center parking lot on a cold December day while her classmates at Jefferson Elementary School sharpened their reading skills.
Her parents say that more than an hour passed before school officials realized the second-grader was missing. Another hour went by before Jefferson administrators notified Samaya’s parents and the police.
“You were imagining all the different things that could happen,” said Jason Dillard, Samaya’s father. “We can’t allow that to happen again. Not just with my child, with anybody’s child.”
Jason and Damia Dillard filed claims with the Natomas Unified School District last month for unspecified damages, a precursor to a lawsuit, alleging severe emotional trauma and distress to Samaya, her two siblings and themselves.
Jason Dillard said the incident on Dec. 18 was the culmination of months of conflict between Samaya and her teacher, Lupe Rodriguez. The couple previously met with Rodriguez and suggested ways to engage their daughter. The Dillards said that Samaya was an honor roll student at St. Hope Public School 7 – a Sacramento charter school – before moving to Jefferson Elementary School in South Natomas.
Rodriguez initially gave Samaya a warning after a minor disagreement with another child, according to her parents. Then, after Samaya accidentally knocked over a glass of water, Rodriguez punished Samaya by dragging her and her chair outside “in a fit of frightening rage,” the claim contends.
Rodriguez could not be reached for comment.
The teacher pulled Samaya out of her classroom at 9:30 a.m. Dec. 18, her parents said. She was wearing a pink and gray sweat shirt and blue jeans, but did not have a jacket. It was 46 degrees at that time, according to the National Weather Service.
Samaya sat outside through recess and the beginning of her reading class, her parents said. Eventually, she headed out the nearby gate.
After Samaya had been missing for more than an hour, school officials began calling for her over the public address system, while staff looked for the child, according to the complaint.
Natomas Unified officials confirmed that someone “connected” with the claim is on administrative leave, but they would not name the employee.
“The district currently is reviewing the claim,” the district said in a prepared statement. “We cannot comment on its allegations or the parties involved because it is a pending legal matter, and because it involves a minor and a personnel issue. We can only say that we care deeply about all children in Natomas Unified School District, we take any allegation seriously, and we are firmly committed to the safety of our students and the best interests of the community we serve.”
When finally notified, the Dillards hurried to the campus, took their two older daughters out of class at a nearby school and drove off in separate cars looking for Samaya.
Samaya later indicated that in the 2 1/2 hours beforehand, she had walked along Truxel Road over Interstate 80, visited Walmart and On The Border Mexican Grill and Cantina, almost 2 miles from her school. Video footage from the restaurant and store confirm her visit, said the parents.
A manager at On The Border later told the Dillards he offered Samaya a glass of water and called the police, but that they declined to respond. The manager could not be reached by The Sacramento Bee for an interview, but police confirm that a call from a number associated with the restaurant came in at 11:07 a.m. Dec. 18.
The dispatcher was told that a 12-year-old child was in front of the restaurant with no parent in sight, said Officer Michele Gigante, spokeswoman for the Sacramento Police Department. The dispatcher asked a number of questions about the child’s demeanor and determined she was not in distress, Gigante said.
The police had not yet received any calls about a missing child and were not aware the child was only 7 years old, she said.
“What does it take for the police to respond?” Damia Dillard said. “They will pull you over for no reason but they won’t check on a little girl. She deserves better than that response.”
After her visit to the restaurant, Samaya reportedly drank her water, turned around and headed back the way she came. Jason Dillard found her walking through their neighborhood.
A review of Natomas district policy shows many remedies for alleged misconduct, including disruption of school activities, but none include putting a child outside unsupervised. Other remedies include detention, parent conference and possible suspension.
The Dillards plan to file a lawsuit against the school district if the claim is rejected, said Omar Krasna, the family’s attorney. Jason Dillard also has filed a police report alleging that Samaya’s teacher committed battery by dragging Samaya – seated in her chair – outside into the cold and leaving her there.
The Dillards say that Samaya is now seeing a counselor twice a week and has been enrolled in a different school in the district.