A twenty-five year veteran kindergarten teacher, 48-year old Angel Hays, died after being struck by a vehicle at 3:30 p.m. on Wednesday at Benton Elementary School in Neosho.  Hays was working in the parent pick-up line after school had been dismissed for the day.
Neosho Police Chief David Kennedy along with Superintendent of Schools Dr. Jim Cummins  addressed the incident during a press conference held at school district headquarters on Thursday.
He named the driver of the vehicle that struck Hays as Irwin Parker, age 88, who was driving an SUV. Parker reportedly had a 12-year old grandchild with him in the vehicle.
Kennedy stated that Irwin was in the pick-up line when his foot became trapped between the brake and accelerator pedals. During efforts to free his foot, Irwin accelerated and struck Hays, then continued for approximately 20-25 yards before striking another vehicle and coming to a stop.
"It's still early in the investigation," Kennedy said. "Eye witness statements put her (Hays) in front of the vehicle."
Hays was reported to be in the lane, directing traffic during parent pick-up at Benton. Traffic cones are used as well as bulwarks to protect the sidewalks but there are no paint markings or crosswalk on the pavement.
Hays was trapped beneath the vehicle and was pronounced dead at the scene by Newton County Coroner Dale Owen.
The accident remains under investigation so the exact speed of the vehicle is unknown. Kennedy confirmed that it was raining at the time the accident occured but since the investigation is still ongoing, he could not state whether or not weather was a factor.
Dr. Jim Cummins spoke on behalf of the Neosho School District. "Today, Neosho mourns one of our own, Angel Hayes," he said. "We’ve been blessed to have Ms. Hayes as part of our team at Neosho for 19 years - both at Field Early Childhood and Benton Elementary. Her kindergarten classroom has become a staple at Benton and her love for students was undeniable."
Hayes had earned her Masters degree from Southwest Missouri State University and had taught for a total of 25 years, the past 19 for the Neosho district.
In a prepared statement read by Cummins, he noted, "One of her co-teachers said that Angel was the perfect name for her."
"Yesterday was one of those days administrators pray they never have to face," Cummins said. "This loss will felt more than just as a teacher but as a family members."
Cummins praised the Benton staff, members of the Neosho Police Department, and the City of Neosho for their assistance after the accident. "On that note, I would like to commend our Benton Team and the Neosho Police Department for the handling of yesterday’s events. Everyone on scene reacted with swiftness and discipline to divert the parents to the front of the building and allow emergency responders to do their job. Thank you for your tremendous efforts and compassion in this difficult time," Cummins stated.
Staff worked quickly, he noted, to divert parents to the front of the building and to allow first responders onto the scene. "It takes a team to handle tragedies," he said. "And we thank everyone for being there with us."
In response to questions regarding the safety of staff and students during parent pick-up times, Cummins stated, "It is standard for teachers to be there in the parent pick-up line. Someone has to be the point person. We will be looking into whether or not this could have been prevented. We believe in continuous improvement, whatever it is, but someone has to move the cars through the process. Student safety is always well-handled.  When we design parent pick-up, student safety is always foremost. The process is really pretty simple and we do everything in our power within the confines of building design."
Since the investigation is ongoing, Kennedy said that he's unable to say at this time whether or not charges will be pending for Irwin.
Classes at Benton Elementary were cancelled for the remainder of the week. All other Neosho schools had classes as scheduled. Counselors were made available to the staff, students, and public on Thursday at the Civic in downtown Neosho. Counselors were also available at all other school locations and will be available for some time.
"The trauma's not going to go away. We will have counselors for staff and students for days and weeks to come," Cummins said.
Within hours of the accident, flowers and other tributes were placed on the Benton Elementary School sign located in front of the building in honor of Hays.
"With a natural talent and a huge heart for her kids, she was a well-known mentor to teachers at Benton and across the district," Cummins said. "Her love for her students was undeniable and seen everyday through her kind spirit and patience."
Cummins concluded the press conference by saying, "We ask for your prayers for Ms. Hayes’ family, the Benton Elementary family and all of Wildcat Nation."