The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission began an investigation yesterday into the accidental death of a 6-year-old girl who was hanged Wednesday when her coat became caught on a metal prong of a giraffe-shaped climbing structure on the playground of Ann Beers Elementary School in Southeast Washington.
Although federal safety officials declined to discuss details of the case, a team of investigators was sent to the school and a commission spokesman said the agency has a "general policy" against any playground equipment that has protruding pieces.
If the equipment design is found dangerous, the commission could require its removal.
Meanwhile, city school safety officials questioned the use of the equipment; two PTA officials said the device should be removed or changed, and a representative of a playgound equipment manufacturers association said he "couldn't conceive of anyone making this type of thing."
Theodore Thomas, the school system's assistant safety director, who is conducting a separate investigation, said he has "some reservations" about the equipment, which has 24 protruding bars in a spine-like arrangement.
School officials were unable to say how many of the giraffe-shaped pieces of equipment are on school grounds. Thomas initially said there might be a dozen, but later said it is possible that the only one in the city is at Beers.
Thomas emphasized that "this is not a defective piece of equipment. It's a very good piece of equipment. There's no reason for children not to play on it with adequate supervision," which he said was available at Beers.
But school safety director Dominic Angino questioned whether the climbing bars, which range from 4 to 8 feet high, should be used by small children. "I don't think any equipment over 4 feet high should be provided for first, second or third graders." Angino's office was established in 1973 to investigate complaints of unsafe conditions, but has never been asked to inspect the equipment at Beers.
Thomas and other school officials said two teachers were on the playground about 1 p.m. Wednesday when the girl, Nikia Lashaun King, of 2100 31st Pl. SE, was scampering off the climbing bars when the hood of her coat got hooked on a bar at the base of the giraffe's neck. The teachers and several "larger students" rushed to aid her, but the girl became unconscious. She was flown by helicopter to Washington Hospital Center, where she died about 2:45 p.m.
School officials and D.C. police have termed the death an accident and have declined to release any other details on what type of supervision the child was under when the incident occurred.
The giraffe-like climbing structure has been at the school since it was remodeled about 13 or 14 years ago, Thomas said, and no other deaths or serious injuries have ever been reported there.
Patricia Morris, president of the citywide D.C. Congress of Parent-Teacher Associations, called the accident "tragic" and expressed surprise that the exposed, multipronged equipment was on the school grounds.
"This is the first time I've seen anything like that," Morris said, looking at a picture of the equipment. "The safer thing is enclosed handrail [ladder-type equipment]. a child could poke out an eye [on this], too."
Beers PTA President Gilbert Bussey said, "This particular piece of equipment should be removed so at least it won't serve as a reminder."
John Spaulding, an executive of the National School Supply and Equipment Association, the trade group for major playground equipment manufacturers, said he would be "aghast" if the equipment at Beers "were made by any of our people." He said he would send out pictures of it to the association's members in an attempt to identify who made it.
A spokeswoman for Acting School Superintendent James T. Guines said he won't remove or order off limits the giraffe-style equipment or others like it until the school and police investigations are complete.
Guines sent a telegram of condolence to Nikia's parents, Lummie and Frank J. King, late Wednesday and a spokeswoman said Guines would visit the family.
Thomas, the assistant safety director, said about 500 city students were reported injured on school playgrounds from October through December, but said there have been fewer than 10 "serious injuries." Thomas said every injury, "from a scratch to a pencil poke," is included in the figures.