Officials at a New Jersey elementary school are apologizing for an apparent mix-up in which a staff member sent a 3-year-old pre-K student home with a stranger last week.
A grandmother went to Dale Avenue School at dismissal time to pick up her granddaughter and was accidentally sent home with a girl who had the same first name, according to a school district spokeswoman.
The Paterson Press reported the grandmother had not seen her granddaughter for nine months, and didn't realize she was picking up the wrong girl. She hugged and kissed the girl before taking her home.
School officials realized the mistake when the girl's mother called the school to say she was on her way to pick up the child and was told that someone had already picked up the girl.
The girl's father told NBC 4 New York he and his wife were terrified when they realized their daughter, Madison, was with a total stranger.
"Your child is missing, you don't know where she is," said Gemar Mills. "We're hysterical, we're going crazy."
School spokeswoman Terry Corallo said in a statement to NBC 4 New York: "Within minutes, the school principal realized the mistake and she worked quickly to ensure the child was returned safely to the school, which she was (within 30 minutes). Our head of security was notified, and so was the child's mother."
Mills said 30 minutes could have meant life or death for Madison, who has a peanut allergy.
"The grandmother said, 'I took her to the store and I gave her a granola bar,'" said Mills. "Well, she has a peanut allergy, so it was a miracle she didn't eat the peanut version."
Mills said the experience left his daughter shaken.
"She keeps telling me, 'I went to the lady's house and then the man yelled out, 'That's not our baby, bring her back,'" he said. "She remembers that stuff."
"She says, 'I don't wanna go to school, I don't want that lady to get me," he said.
The father is angry that the school didn't follow its own protocol of checking if the woman was on the list of people authorized to pick up his daughter, and didn't call police when they realized Madison was missing. Instead, the school reached out to the grandmother first.
"They called the abductor instead of calling the police," Mills told the Paterson Press. "How can we trust that they're going to keep any child safe?"
He said he's reported the incident to state child protective services.
The school has disciplined the staff member who released the child, and has taken additional steps to tighten security during dismissal, said Corallo. Authorized adults must now show identification at the main office before leaving with a child.
Follow Checkey Beckford on Twitter @Checkey4NY