NEOSHO, Mo. — Angel Hayes, a kindergarten teacher who was hit and killed by a vehicle Wednesday outside Benton Elementary School, was described Thursday by a colleague as devoted to her work in and out of the classroom.
“She was more than passionate,” said Jody Martin, the current principal of Field Early Childhood Center and a former principal of Benton. “She would fight tooth and nail when she thought something was right for her kids.”
Hayes, 48, had worked as an educator for 25 years, 19 of which were spent in the Neosho School District at Benton Elementary and Field Early Childhood Center, Superintendent Jim Cummins said during a news conference Thursday.
“(Wednesday) was one of those days school administrators pray they will never have to face,” Cummins said. "Teachers not only teach together, they attend church together, spend time with each other’s families and raise their own children together. This loss will be felt just as the loss of a family member."
About the accident
In a news conference Thursday, Neosho police Chief David Kennedy said his department responded to a pedestrian accident at around 3:30 p.m. Wednesday at Benton Elementary School, 1120 Carl Sweeney Road.
When emergency services arrived, they found Hayes trapped beneath an SUV in the back parking lot of Benton, Kennedy said. Emergency responders used an airbag device to raise the vehicle and remove Hayes from underneath.
The driver of the SUV was identified as 88-year-old Erwin Parker, of Neosho; Kennedy said Parker’s 12-year-old granddaughter was also in the vehicle. Hayes was pronounced dead at the scene by Newton County Coroner Dale Owen.
According to Parker’s account: “He was in the parent pickup line (and) his foot got trapped between the brake and accelerator, causing his vehicle to lurch forward. Once that happened, he struck Ms. Hayes (and) continued through the parking lot until he struck another vehicle, which stopped the vehicle," the police chief said.
Kennedy said that after Hayes was hit, she may have been dragged 20 to 25 yards before the vehicle was stopped. It's not yet known at what speed Parker’s vehicle was traveling, nor whether the rain at the time of the accident may have been a factor, he said.
“There are some things that we can do to gather data from the vehicle, and we are in the process” of that, Kennedy said.
As of Thursday, no charges had been filed, and the investigation was ongoing, he said.
The typical after-school routine at Benton is that once school is dismissed, a line of parent vehicles forms in the back parking lot of the school, Cummins said. Three cars at a time pull up to a circular driveway in front of the back entrance, with the curb on the passenger side so that students may enter and exit the vehicle without leaving the sidewalk.
Teachers are on pickup duty each day, making sure that students stand back from the curb until their parent or guardian arrives, Cummins said. Students will then get into their vehicle, and once all three curbside vehicles are loaded, they are directed forward by a teacher so that the next three vehicles in line can take their place. Traffic cones are used to help direct traffic.
Preliminary reports and witness statements have indicated that Hayes was in front of Parker’s vehicle when she was struck, the police chief said.
The superintendent said it is standard for a teacher to be out front directing traffic during pickup time.
“I’ve spent many hours of my career looking at the ways parent pickup lines work, and somebody has to be the person that brings cars forward (and) moves them on when it’s time for the next group to arrive,” he said. “So it is not an uncommon thing to have somebody that is directing traffic.”
Cummins said the parent pickup procedure is often designed to emphasize student safety, and the district now will begin reviewing ways in which to increase teacher safety. He said he didn't know if Hayes and other teachers on pickup duty wear reflective vests, but he doesn't believe they do.
“The person that’s directing the traffic, we obviously want them to be safe as well, so we will have to look at what can we modify that would potentially have remedied this situation," he said.
Classes at Benton have been canceled until Monday, and counseling services are available for students, parents, teachers and community members beginning at 9 a.m. Friday at the Neosho Civic Center, 109 W. Main St. Counseling services are also being offered at other schools for students or teachers who may have known Hayes.
“As we turn the page on Monday, the trauma is not going to go away, so we plan to provide counseling for our staff in the days and weeks to come and make sure they have the support they need," Cummins said.
'People were drawn to her'
Hayes was a longtime educator who had received her master’s degree in education from Missouri State University, Cummins said.
“Over the years, her kindergarten classroom has become a staple at Benton,” he said. “With a natural talent for teaching and a huge year for her kids, she was a well-known mentor to teachers at Benton and across the district.”
Hayes is survived by her son and her mother, and when she wasn’t at school, she was with her family and friends, Cummins said. She was described as a woman of strong faith who cared about all people or animals that crossed her path.
Many teachers who worked with Hayes looked up to her and sought her for advice, said Martin, the Field principal.
“She was one that not just her colleagues, but any new teacher was able to go and ask questions,” she said. “Any time teachers would have a question about discipline or just how to handle something, she was one of those people who just had a natural ability. People were drawn to her.”
Martin said Hayes will be missed by her students and colleagues.
“She was just one of those people who was a natural caregiver,” she said. “You saw it with her family, you saw it with her students and also with her colleagues.”