News 4 has learned the district has access to an automated call system but chose not to use it during Thursday’s lockdown at Harvey Austin Elementary School as police looked for a possible gunman.
More than a dozen cop cars, K9 units, the SWAT team and Erie County Sheriff’s Air One helicopter responded to the Sycamore Street school around 4:15 p.m. on Thursday. The enormity of the police presence terrified parents who were anxiously awaiting information.
Superintendent Dr. Pamela Brown says though the district chose not to use the automated system, individual parents were called by staff.
Buffalo Teachers Federation President Phil Rumore says teachers making the calls ran into some problems.
“They didn’t have the correct number for some of the parents because parents moved, they changed their phone numbers, their cell phone changes. But we will have to take a look, and we can always do better,” he said.
Brown says the first priority was to make sure students and staff inside the building were safe. But says she understands the anxiety some parents were experiencing, especially after a secondary search of the school ended with 52-year-old Dwayne Ferguson being taken into custody.
“As a parent my self I can empathize with their feelings,” she said.
While the automated system wasn’t used during the incident, it was used the following day to send out a message to the school community. In the message, Brown tells parents, “I’m grateful that everyone is safe. And sorry for the strife that some parents went through in the interim.”
Erie 1 BOCES District Superintendent Donald Ogilvie says deciding how and when to notify parents is a judgment call.
“One of the more difficult approaches to take would be to call each parent. Credit them for making the effort, but you know in an emergency, when you mention man with a gun you will not get off the phone,” Ogilvie said.
So was this the best approach?
Brown said, “We are looking at that situation and we’ll do everything possible to improve our procedures.”
She did say that she verified with staff at the school that emergency contact information on file was recent. According to the state education department, each school district is legally responsible for developing, reviewing and updating school safety plans at the district and building level.
The district also said the automated system would have called every parent in the district rather than only the students who were at the school for an after school program.