3 On Your Side Investigates: Losing Sophia

Parents believe school district didn’t do enough to save their five-year-old daughter

3 On Your Side Investigates: Losing Sophia

JACKSON, MS (WLBT) - A Warren County family still hasn’t been able to find closure after losing their 5-year-old daughter Sophia earlier this year.

Her parents maintain that Sophia’s death could have been prevented because it happened at school.

“She was everybody’s heart. She was the heart of this family and then, when she left, it just broke everybody," said Suzanne Adams, Sophia’s mother.

It’s been nearly seven months since Kenneth Adams and his wife Suzanne had to bury their 5-year-old daughter Sophia.

For them, it might as well have happened yesterday.

“I gave her a kiss goodbye and said I’ll see you when you get home, and I never saw her again. And that eats at me every day, every day," Kenneth said.

Sophia had Walker Warburg Syndrome, a type of congenital muscular dystrophy, which limited her movement and abilities. However, her parents didn’t want her to have any limits. They included her in everything.

“When we eat supper, she sits at the supper table with us. When we’re out walking around, she’s with us," Kenneth said.

When Sophia turned five -- a milestone for her parents because doctors told them she likely wouldn’t live that long -- her parents decided to take her out of Caring Hands, a pediatric care facility for those with special needs.

“It was pretty sterile. A lot of the kids couldn’t speak or move,” Kenneth said.

They enrolled her in elementary school so she could be around able-bodied kids and learn with them.

We noticed that she was getting a personality, her own personality, and I think a lot of that was due to her being around other children who could walk and talk," Kenneth said. "I feel strongly she was trying to be like those other children.”

On April 10, three months after Sophia started at Beechwood Elementary, her parents received a phone call from the school.

Sophia’s teacher told Suzanne that the nurse on duty that day couldn’t get the family’s portable suction pump to work. That pump was used to clear Sophia’s airway of excess saliva or mucus.

Suzanne’s phone records show the school first called at 9:14 a.m., where it appeared the call went straight to voicemail.

The teacher tried again at 9:31, and Suzanne answered.

“It was just a calm, collected voice. She was just complaining with the suction pump. Just a normal, typical day like someone just didn’t know what in the world they were doing. But there were no kind of alarms like there was a problem," Suzanne said.

The phone records for Suzanne’s prepaid cell show the school called twice more -- once from the teacher’s personal cell, according to the parents. Each time, they said they weren’t pleased with the suction pump and asked if they were using it correctly.

“The nurse grabs the phone and then tells me off and tells me to get my butt down there and suction her out to make sure it’s done right," Suzanne said.

When Suzanne and her husband arrived, they saw their daughter being prepped for an ambulance.

“When I pushed past the police and the paramedics and the school people, they said they couldn’t get a heartbeat. The ambulance guy said pretty much that she was already gone," Kenneth said. “And that’s what I witnessed myself. I could already tell that she was deceased.”

A prehospital care report from the Vicksburg Fire Department’s ambulance service, obtained by 3 On Your Side, indicated Sophia was cool and pale to the touch when EMTs arrived.

The report also stated Sophia had difficulty clearing her airway of mucus since early that morning.

Kenneth said they did use the suction machine that morning, but didn’t agree with what the EMT’s statement, telling us she had no issues when she boarded the bus.

3 On Your Side confirmed from a Warren County 911 operator that the school called 911 at 9:34 a.m., three minutes after they talked to Suzanne and twenty minutes after they first attempted to reach the parents.

“They reassured us, they promised us, and all that fell through that day. What we asked them to do, they did not follow it," Kenneth said. “The list we had was call the pediatrician, call 911, and then call us.”

Kenneth said school officials didn’t even call the child’s pediatrician that day.

The contact list Kenneth referenced could not be found within paperwork the Vicksburg Warren School District eventually provided us from Sophia’s Individualized Education Program.

IEPs are typically used for special-needs children to customize their educational and, sometimes, medical care.

“Our experience has been if something’s not in the IEP, it’s usually not because the parent decided not to tell the IEP committee or the special ed teacher," said Micah Dutro, legal director for Disability Rights Mississippi.

The IEP showed Sophia was supposed to have a trained nurse with her at all times who would perform the suctioning.

Under an arrangement with the district, the Adams would be responsible for providing the suction machine to the school and cleaning it each day.

“We have sent it to school and had no problems whatsoever. Why in this day they had a problem, I do not know," Kenneth said.

Dutro said sometimes these care instructions aren’t even followed.

“A lot of the cases we’ve dealt with over the years to do with education have been in situations where the IEP says everything you could ask, but some or all of the IEP isn’t actually being put into practice. That’s just as big a legal problem as not putting things in the IEP at all," Dutro said. “And the district is responsible for doing the things the IEP says should be done for that particular child.”

3 On Your Side requested public documents that could shed some light into how the Vicksburg Warren School District responded that day.

After weeks of correspondence, Briggs Hopson, the district’s attorney, agreed to release the documents -- eight pages' worth of emails -- for $473.

WLBT disputes that fee.

While those emails could provide perspective on the district’s handling of Sophia’s IEP, it’s unclear if they would answer why the district waited several minutes to call 911.

“While the Vicksburg Warren School District does not comment on specific student issues, we are still saddened by the loss of a Beechwood Elementary School student last spring,” district communications and media specialist Christi Kilroy said in a statement. “The district will continue to support loved ones and staff as we together grieve the loss of our beloved student.”

That statement represents the first time the district publicly acknowledged Sophia’s death since it happened in April.

WLBT asked the district for comment regarding some of the statements made by the Adams family -- and the handling of IEPs in general -- but the district did not respond.

3 On Your Side confirmed through the district’s personnel director that everyone believed to be involved in that incident remains employed with the district.

“I believe they do have something to hide, because we had to bury our daughter without any answers. She was healthy. Even her pediatrician said she didn’t belong on that table," Suzanne said.

Both parents also believe the district used Sophia’s medical condition to downplay the seriousness of any actions the school’s employees could have been responsible for.

“They’re blaming it on her condition, and it wasn’t her condition," Suzanne said.

Inside the Adams home, Sophia’s room remains just as it was when she was alive: colorful walls dancing with Disney characters, stuffed animals and pink sparkles.

Her parents can’t bear to touch anything inside.

To this day, Kenneth can’t even go into the room without breaking down. He feels guilty for taking his daughter out of Caring Hands in the first place.

“It weighs on us like we did something wrong when we were just trying to better our daughter, to give her a life that’s more normal,” Kenneth said. "She was getting better. She was doing things the doctor said she’d never do. She was doing them. So we thought we were doing the right thing.”

Suzanne said the actions of those involved that day -- and the district’s lack of public acknowledgement until now -- are cowardly.

“They made us feel like everything would be okay. And we trusted them. And because we trusted the school system, we don’t have our daughter no more,” Suzanne said.

If you’re the parent of a special-needs child and believe your school district may not be following your child’s IEP correctly, Disability Rights Mississippi has provided these resources:

  • MS Parent Training and Information Center: 601-969-0601 or 1-800-721-7255
  • Living Independence for Everyone (LIFE) of Mississippi: 601-969-4009 or 1-800-748-9398
  • The Arc of MS: 601-355-0220
  • MS Families As Allies: 1-800-833-9671 or 601-355-0915

You can also file a complaint with DRM by clicking here.

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