12/13/2014 16:58 EST | Updated 02/12/2015 05:59 EST

Earl Kitchener's proposed safety measures divide parents

Earl Kitchener Elementary School is considering changing playground safety protocols in the wake of an attempted kidnapping in October, but not all parents are on board. 

More than 100 parents have signed an online petition to challenge the school's proposal to limit playground access in the morning to students and staff only, which means parents must leave the playground after dropping their children off and can only observe from the sidewalk or the drop-off area. 

The proposed change is one of the recommendations that came out of a police audit in November. Hamilton police visited the site on Nov. 13 and saw that there were numerous children and parents on the playground, as well as some adults just standing in the area, making it difficult to differentiate between parents and community members. 

"If an adult was on the lot and not associated with the school or a student of the school, it would be near impossible for a staff member to differentiate as well," the police audit concluded, adding that the situation is complicated by the sheer size of the school, home to 580 students. 

The police audit recommended that the playground should become "student-only" at 8:35 a.m. Parents must leave the playground and no adults would be allowed, except for teachers and assistant teachers. 

"The overall safety of the school and students should trump the individual needs of parents/child," police said. 

The police audit was conducted in the wake of a thwarted kidnapping on Oct. 23. Shortly after noon, a kindergarten student was led away from the school's playground by a man he didn't know. A witness in the area saw the child crying and intervened, and the suspect ran away. 

- Hamilton parents on edge after school abduction attempt 

Dakota Hart, 47, of Hamilton, faces charges of forcibly seizing a person, assault with a weapon and breach of probation. 

Community-building time

But Brad Chichakian, who started the online petition with his wife Kelly Knuckle, said having parents on the playground actually makes the place safer. 

"When there are 100 parents on the playground, anyone that would attempt to abduct a kid would be insane," he said, adding that the October incident happened around noon when no parents were there. 

Also, Chichakian said the 15-minute window between 8:35 and 8:50 a.m. when classes start is when parents get to know each other, the kids and who belongs to whom — another safety bonus. 

Chichakian cited a recent incident when a child injured herself on the playground. A parent held the child still so she didn't move, while another parent who is a doctor provided assistance. Chichakian, who recognized the child, called her parents. 

"None of that would have happened to that degree if there'd be 10 teachers for 400 hundred kids," he said. "Whether they would have even seen that happen is doubtful."

In addition to the safety benefit, Chichakian said the time between drop-off and classes also provides a bonding opportunity for parents and kids, as well as for the school community. 

"Most people are absolutely against being denied their right to go onto the playground, and we find it borderline offensive," he told CBC Hamilton. 

Chichakian, who has three kids enrolled in Earl Kitchener, added that he is skeptical about the police audit.

"The police was there for one day, maybe two. I've been on that playground for seven years. I can tell you it's safer with parents there."

Obstructed sight lines

The proposed changes have supporters too. 

Cathy Koop, whose son is a student at Earl Kitchener, said she recognizes the importance of community building during that 15-minute window, but says it can take place at other times and places, such as after school. Many parents are already staying after school to talk to each other. 

As a former teacher, she said she understands the difficulty for teachers to monitor the students during the morning rush. 

"Because of the geography of the school and the playground, good sight lines are not possible with that many adults on the playground," she said. 

Both sides, however, agree that it doesn't have to be an either-or solution. The online petition calls for compromise and engagement to reach a solution, and Koop also encourages parents to hear the pros and cons of the proposed changes.

Delayed implementation 

The school is hoping to find that middle ground.  

The proposed changes, presented at last Tuesday's parent council meeting, were slated to be implemented soon. But that has been delayed to next year to allow time for more community feedback. 

In a letter sent to parents on Thursday, Principal Richelle Bratuz said the school will work with the school board's research department to create an online survey to gather more feedback. The survey will be distributed to parents in January. 

"We feel that it is necessary to take action on this issue, and will work with community input in doing so," Bratuz wrote. "The challenge we have is that we are very proud of the community feel at Earl Kitchener, yet we need to ensure that student safety is paramount in all that we do."

The school could not be immediately reached for comments on Saturday. 

The Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board has already tightened security across all 93 of its elementary schools in the aftermath of the attempted kidnapping.