June 12, 2015

NYSUT members jump into action to keep students safe and calm during North Country manhunt

Author: Liza Frenette
Source: NYSUT Communications
saranac lake
Caption: Photo provided.

Students, teachers, staff and families fearing for their safety in the midst of a massive manhunt for two convicted murderers stayed home today for a second day at the rural Saranac Central School in Clinton County.

The search for the escapees, which went in many directions the first four days, veered back to the wooded areas and roads near the Saranac elementary school and combined middle and high schools after reports that evidence was found in the forest. The school buildings are less than five miles from the Clinton Correctional Facility. Some students and families are sheltered in their homes in the six-square mile search area.

"A lot of people chose to relocate upon recommendation of law enforcement, due to immediate danger," said Michele Bushey, a biology teacher who was just elected president of her 177-member teachers union on June 1. Some houses are very secluded, and located in heavily wooded areas, so people left to stay with friends or family in other towns. Some of them are teachers and school health care professionals who commuted to work the first three days of this week when school was in session.

Since the media reported that bloodhounds picked up a scent, the roadsides have been flanked with "hundreds and hundreds" of law enforcement officers, including New York State Police, sheriffs, Homeland Security, border patrol, U.S. Marshals, CIA, specially trained correction officers and forest rangers, Bushey said. Public buildings are being used by search teams, and a command post is set up in the administrative building at the prison, which is known for its looming walls and rough inmate population.

"The decision to close the school was a collective decision," Bushey said. "The superintendent [Jonathan Parks] has been communicating very closely with law enforcement officials and with me." She, in turn, has been keeping her colleagues informed throughout the search, which is now in its sixth day.

Saranac is 20 miles from Plattsburgh and 20 miles from Saranac Lake.

During the first three days, a law enforcement official patrolled each school and grounds after the buildings were swept to ensure they were safe to be opened. The decision was then made to close the schools when it was determined the escapees, Richard Matt and David Sweat, were likely still in the area.

To keep students from being anxious, and to focus on the help they were getting to be kept safe, principal Tracy Manor sent an email to staff asking them to have students send cards and letters to law enforcement. She said teachers came up with the idea of having students create a banner. Jennifer Ovios, math and reading intervention teacher, and Mark Burrell, physical education teacher, helped students craft a giant banner that hangs outside the school to show support for law enforcement.

"We just try to emphasize the helpers," Manor said. She said the school is fortunate to have two school psychologists and a school counselor who will work alongside teachers to help students through this community upheaval.

"There are so many factors to consider with this unfortunate situation. Everything from working with law enforcement specialists of the New York State Police to sweep the building before our students and staff enter; to providing safe transportation through potentially dangerous areas; to creating an emergency final exam and Regents' exam plan, to making sure our STA members and other staff are notified of our decisions and plans and many other considerations related to the operation of our school system," Bushey said. "Mr. Parks has been outstanding to work with as well as our NYSUT labor relations specialist, Megan O'Brien. "

The importance of having a union president, she said, includes "having a lead teacher who can reach out to staff. They know what we're working on and what's happening. It helps calm them in this challenging situation." She is using phones, email and social media to keep in frequent touch with her fellow teachers.

"Reaching out to our STA members to provide updated information has helped to maintain calmness in a very challenging situation," she said.

The school is closed for both students and staff, Bushey said, because "we must keep every individual safe." The district is 181 square miles.

One school employee, who asked not be identified due to safety and privacy concerns in this heightened manhunt, said that in the first three days of school this week both students and adults were anxious. She said her own child was afraid to go home to their house, which is tucked in the woods. She encouraged her son to think about how many people were there to keep them safe, and to wave at enforcement officials as they went through numerous road blocks each day.

"Last weekend we decided to relocate in order to feel safer, but Wednesday we were advised by law officials who were searching our property to relocate until the situation is over.  We have not stayed in our house since Monday and nobody has even been there since Wednesday when we were advised to leave," she said.

At her own home, Bushey said she has been too frightened to venture out to the barn with her 3-year-old daughter, Julia, to feed her three horses. Her fiancé, Patrick Ryan, a lieutenant with the New York State Police, has been logging long hours at the command post. When he's not home, her neighbor, who works for border patrol at the nearby Canadian border, has been feeding the horses for her.

When robocalls first went out to families to let them know school would be closing, some families were not at home, because they had left their premises under advisement of law enforcement. Email and social media were used to supplement that notice. The staff population at Saranac Central is 400, which includes substitutes, and all full and part-time staff. The student population for K-12 is about 1,500.

"It's a really challenging time of year," Bushey said. Final exams were scheduled for Thursday and Friday. Regents' exams start Tuesday.

"A large concern that our members have is how this is impacting our students," she said. Many of them have parents who work at the prison, which is the main employer in this rural area. Many others have parents who work in law enforcement. The school hallways and grounds were patrolled by a law enforcement officer Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday; the community has been saturated with search teams and armed law enforcement.

"The teachers who have been speaking with me said a lot of time had to spent helping students emotionally," Bushey said.

Both the elementary school and the junior-senior high school are located a short distance apart from each other on Picketts Corners Road.

This message from Superintendent Jonathan Parks was posted on the school's web site:

"In order to assist law enforcement personnel with their search efforts, and due to the closure of a number of roads in the District, all schools in the Saranac Central School District will be closed today. Classes are scheduled to resume on Monday, June 15, 2015.

MESSAGE FROM MR. PARKS REGARDING SECURITY PRECAUTIONS FOR THE WEEK OF JUNE 8, 2015:

In light of the recent escape from Clinton Correctional Facility, we will take a number of extra precautions to ensure the safety of our students and staff during school this week.

  • On Sunday, June 7, Law enforcement personnel completed a thorough search of all District buildings, each of our school buses and they have searched the woods and swamps surrounding the Middle/High School.
  • New York State Police will be on site at each school building throughout the school day until approximately 5:30 p.m. all this week.
  • We will cancel outdoor activities during the day.
  • Bus drivers will wait for students who wish to remain inside their homes until buses arrive in the morning.
  • According to the New York State Police and the Department of Corrections, all the checkpoints will remain in place.

The safety of our students and staff is priority number one. Please be assured that we will do all that we possibly can do to help everyone feel safe while they are at school.

Bushey also asked that we "extend on behalf of our Saranac Teachers' Association and school community our heartfelt appreciation to each of the brave and dedicated men and women for working so diligently to bring back safety and peace to our beloved community."

saranac lake
Saranac Elementary School students personalize a thank-you banner for law enforcement officials. Photo provided.