The first day of class at a Texas elementary school quickly went from a day of excitement to one of tragedy Monday as a mother was killed shielding several children from a car in the school’s parking lot.
Kharisma Ashlee James, 33, died at the scene at Mary N. Tippin Elementary School, in El Paso. Three students were also injured, including two of the James’ children, school officials said. They were taken to the hospital for treatment.
Victor Araiza, chief of the El Paso Independent School District’s police force, said at a media briefing Tuesday morning that the victim’s 6-year-old daughter, her 7-year-old son and the third child, a 10-year-old fellow student, are in serious condition but are getting better.
“All of those children are expected to survive,” Araiza said.
Araiza told reporters at the scene Monday afternoon that James was walking through the parking lot with the children around 3:30 p.m. when Roger Hawking, 58, started to back the car he was driving out of a parking spot. Hawking was picking his grandchildren up from school.
After backing into another car, Hawking apparently hit the accelerator instead of the brake. James tried to get in front of the children so they would not be struck, school district officials said.
“The parent attempted to get the attention of the driver and intervene, and that parent was also struck by the vehicle,” Araiza said.
Victoria Bruce, another parent who was friends with James, told KFOX-TV she heard the collision take place.
“You heard the metal crash so loud that you knew that something awful had happened,” Bruce told the news station Tuesday morning. “Everybody went running over. I kept my kids back because I knew at that point there was nothing I could do and I didn’t want ... (my children) to see whatever had happened. You could hear people shouting, ‘Is there a doctor or nurse?’”
Bruce said she found out later that it was a friend who was killed and that she died protecting her children.
James’ Facebook page indicated that she was a U.S. Army veteran who served in Iraq. After eight years in the service, she went back to school with the help of a scholarship from the Women’s Fund of El Paso, according to a May 2017 blog post on the organization’s website.
A May 2017 graduate of the Gayle Greve Hunt School of Nursing at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, she started working at the Hospitals of Providence in November, her Facebook page said.
The Women’s Fund of El Paso shared photos from James’ graduation on its own Facebook page, including pictures of the beaming graduate with her children and other family members.
Araiza said Tuesday that investigators were trying to determine if Hawking was suffering a medical issue when the accident happened.
“We just don’t know yet,” Araiza said.
The chief said school administrators are doing everything in their power to ensure traffic moves smoothly in the school’s parking lot.
“It’s difficult to describe how this could have been prevented,” Araiza said. “The actuality is that the responsible person for this is the driver of that vehicle. The fault does not rest on the school administration. The fault rests on the individual who was operating that vehicle and was not familiar with it.”
It was not clear why Hawking was not familiar with the vehicle. He could face charges in the accident.
Counselors were provided almost immediately after the collision to help students, faculty and parents who witnessed the accident. Araiza said police and school officials worked through the night Monday to ensure that the school was ready for its students to arrive on the second day of class.
Counselors will be on hand the remainder of this week, as well as next week.
“We want to make sure that our kids are able to get through this and that our parents that are bringing their kids to our schools understand that we’re doing everything that we possibly can to keep them safe,” Araiza said. “This is a very tragic accident.”
School resumed Tuesday morning, with several police officers on the scene as parents arrived to drop their children off. One motorcycle officer could be seen issuing traffic citations, according to the El Paso Times.
El Paso Superintendent Juan Cabrera was also at the school, where he told reporters an accident like the one that took place is something no one could ever prepare for.
“We literally do thousands and thousands of pickups and drop-offs every week across the city with 92 schools,” Cabrera said. “We are right now just really focused on the students.”
He said there were an extra 50 adults on campus to help care for the children.
“Our No. 1 priority is to take care of the kids,” Cabrera said. “What we’re trying to make sure of is that the buses are running on time and the kids feel safe and secure.
“This is the second day of school. It should be one of the most joyous times of the year. All of us have kids; many of us have kids here at the district, so we know how important the start of school is.”
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