Following a heart-pounding incident Saturday, the parents of a 4-year-old boy allege they were told to exit the Willard Aquatic Center — and never come back.

Zachary and Nichole Maggard said they were attending the Willard Freedom Fest on Saturday when their son, Lyric, broke away from a family member, ran into the aquatic center and jumped into the pool fully clothed.

The boy, found within minutes, was not injured.

The parents met with Cailan Gray, aquatic and fitness supervisor, after the incident. In a lengthy Facebook post, they allege they were told to stay away because their son has a severe form of autism. He is nonverbal and struggles to process language.

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“(The supervisor) then told my husband and Lyric that we and ‘he’ was banned. From the pool. He could not come back,” said Nichole Maggard, of Eudora. “We have gone every year religiously and drive almost 40 minutes to get there. That is the best part of summer for Lyric.”

Willard city officials acknowledge there was an incident and the parents were asked to leave — for the day — during a meeting with the supervisor.

City Administrator Bradley Gray — no relation to Cailan Gray — said the mother was “verbally aggressive” with the supervisor.

He said the supervisor handed the parents a business card and asked that they leave and call later or contact his boss, park director J.C. Loveland.

“If she inferred that was a ban, that’s unfortunate,” he said.

Bradley Gray said the city parks and recreation areas welcome individuals with special needs and would never refuse admission to someone based on a disability.

While the parents and city officials disagree on what was said in the meeting, they agree on what prompted it.

The Maggards said they were attending the outdoor festival at a park near the aquatic center when their son went to the playground with a female relative.

“Lyric broke away from her and took off into the crowd,” Nichole Maggard wrote in a Facebook post. “Lyric was missing we looked all over. I was in a panic and in tears we found a police officer and reported him missing.”

She said the couple has been heavily criticized on social media for losing sight of the boy. 

“I’ve gotten so much backlash from the community,” she said. “I acknowledge that he got away.”

Minutes into the search, Nichole Maggard said, her husband ran to the pool — where the family had spent many summer afternoons.

City officials acknowledge the boy entered the center undetected and walked into the splash area for children and made his way to a slide.

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“He somehow got by the girl at the (front) desk,” Gray said.

He added: “This child ran into the pool very quickly. This was resolved very quickly.”

Nichole Maggard said her husband spotted the boy “standing up on the slide” and quickly jumped over the fence. She acknowledged a lifeguard was nearby but alleged her son went down the slide “completely unsupervised.”

She said the boy was fully clothed, which would have indicated he was out of place.

“I’m talking shoes, pants, pull up, shirt,” she wrote in the post. “He did not in anyway look like a kid at the pool.”

Reunited with her son, the mother checked to see if the boy was hurt. He was not.

“I literally dropped to my knees crying. From the top of his head to his shoes was soaked his eyes were red from the chlorine. I knew where he had been,” she wrote in the post. “I checked him over and made sure he was okay and sent him with his dad to change clothes.”

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Nichole Maggard said she went to the pool and questioned the teen at the front desk about how her son managed to get into the fenced center.

“I was pretty hysterical because I was scared,” she told the News-Leader. “I wanted to know how he walked past several adults.”

The teen called over the supervisor, who vowed to find out what happened. The mom left briefly to check on the boy and returned with her husband.

“My son could have died. That’s all I keep thinking about. That’s all I can focus on,” she said in the post. “Yes, I dropped the ball in so many places. But it only takes two seconds and tragedy can strike.”

Inside the supervisor’s office, Nichole Maggard said she demanded answers. “This could have been any child that walked in there.”

The center requires any child under age 12 to be accompanied by an adult.

She also demanded to talk to the lifeguards on duty. “I was extremely upset.”

Bradley Gray, who spoke to the News-Leader along with parks director J.C. Loveland, said when the mom became upset during the meeting, the supervisor followed protocol by telling her to leave and suggesting they talk later, after she calmed down.

He acknowledged that he could not independently verify what was said in the meeting, because no other employees were present, but said he investigated the incident and believes the supervisor acted appropriately.

Gray expressed frustration the Maggard family turned to social media before resolving the situation. “It’s unfortunate that Facebook was the tool.”

He reached out to the family to meet Tuesday evening with the goal of looking at what happened and conveying to the family that they are not banned.

“We reached out,” he said. “We talked about what we can do to welcome her.”

Nichole Maggard said she is skeptical of the overture, alleging it was “damage control,” but remained hopeful some good will come out of the meeting.

“There needs to be stricter rules in that pool,” she said. “There needs to be more supervision.”

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