The superintendent of a statewide charter school district said he has taken measures to ensure students are not falsely reported missing.
The moves, which Legacy Traditional School superintendent Bill Bressler described as disciplinary and meant to drive home personal accountability of employees, were in response to an Aug. 20 incident.
An 8-year-old Marana girl was incorrectly reported absent, prompting a school lockdown a nd three-hour campuswide search before officers discovered that the student was in her classroom the whole time.
Marana couple Danny and Jennifer Fernandez pulled their daughter, third-grader Paisley Fernandez, out of the school the next day. The couple say they are disappointed in the school but do not plan legal action because they are satisfied the school will make sure incidents don’t happen again.
Still, the family is still recovering from the trauma of thinking their daughter was missing.
“I pretty much died that day,” said Danny, who was working in Phoenix when he received a call that Paisley was missing. He immediately headed to the school at 3500 W. Cortaro Farms Road. “Then when I found out she was fine, it was like being brought back to life.”
“There was a colossal breakdown,” Jennifer said about the incident. She said school Principal Christine Fitzsimmons contacted her to apologize Aug. 27, after a Star reporter told Bressler Aug. 26 that Fitzsimmons had not yet contacted the Fernandezes.
Bressler would not talk specifics about the incident or say which employees were disciplined. School staffers searched for Paisley and could not find her, then Jennifer Fernandez contacted the Pima County Sheriff’s Department, which placed the school on lockdown.
The sheriff’s air, search and rescue and motor units, as well as detectives, Sheriff’s Auxiliary volunteers and deputies from other districts, including Northwest Fire District, converged on the school to conduct a search. Eventually one of the law enforcement officers found Paisley in her classroom.
Fitzsimmons did not respond to Star requests for an interview. In a letter to parents, she wrote, “Safety is always a top priority on our campus, and we will continue to ensure that all our policies and procedures are fully implemented.”
Jennifer Fernandez said she was “a hysterical mess” in the hours she waited in a conference room to hear the fate of her daughter. Law enforcement officials searched her house while she waited.
Jennifer said she wished school personnel would have searched the classroom more thoroughly before falsely alerting her. She said she was surprised to discover the school has no security cameras outside its entrance.
Jennifer said Fitzsimmons did not come into the room to console the family as they waited, and that she explained in the Aug. 27 phone call that she was off campus at a meeting.
Once she finally reunited with Paisley, Jennifer was overjoyed. But then Paisley, who didn’t realize she was at the epicenter of the confusion, became intimidated.
“A police officer quickly whisked her out of there, and there she comes into a room with grown people with guns, staring at her,” Jennifer said. “At that point, she started freaking out. Police wanted to interview her and she was thinking she did something wrong.”
Jennifer said she also was traumatized.
“I was crying, hoping they would find her so I could bury her,” she said. “It was absolutely devastating.”
Paisley is now enrolled at Sonoran Science Academy Tucson 6-12, the school she attended before her parents placed her at Legacy to start the school year. Her mom is mystified about how and why things went wrong.
“It doesn’t seem like something that was so simple to prevent could have ever happened,” Jennifer said. “There should have been triple and quadruple checks. Somebody should have made a physical beeline to the classroom. I think they really need to work on accountability.”
Bressler said there were some “really odd coincidences” that contributed to the mistakes. He said the school has instituted “accountability measures” to correct the problem and would not say whether any employees have been fired.
“We conducted a pretty thorough inspection of the whole entire process, including our procedures,” he said. “There are areas, as in any operation, that we are going to improve on to hopefully ensure something like this never occurs again.”
Bressler said the school system is using the incident as an opportunity to improve.
“We could ensure something like this doesn’t occur again,” he said. “Retraining and reprogramming were some of our efforts to make sure a parent never has to get a phone call and feel as though their child is missing. ... I can’t imagine how that would feel. We’re completely empathetic with the family, and we’re going to do everything in our power to make sure nothing like this ever happens again. The parents have been very cooperative, and we understand their decision and support it. It’s very unfortunate.”
Jennifer Fernandez hopes no other parents have to endure what she did.
“Our objective,” she said, “is just to make sure whatever happened doesn’t happen to anybody else.”