Sullivan County Democrat
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January 24, 2014 Issue
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Eli Ruiz | Democrat

Jackie Suarez of Swan Lake walks her daughters Samiyah, left, and Serena away from Liberty ES on Friday. There is confusion over how Serena, a kindergartner, who was supposed to take the bus, wound up walking away and was found later near the Exit 100 ramp, over one mile away.

Kindergartner does ‘walkabout’

Story by Eli Ruiz
LIBERTY — January 21, 2014 — A Liberty kindergartner gave both the school and her mom a bad scare last Tuesday, disappearing for nearly 30 minutes shortly after dismissal, and turning up over a mile from the campus.
According to the district officials, the incident started at approximately 2:33 p.m. – when the dismissal process begins. Six-year-old Serena Suarez, who is regularly bused to her family home in Swan Lake, expressed to her teacher that she wanted to walk home that day.
According to the school, the teacher told Suarez that she could not walk home.
At Liberty Elementary School, walkers and students picked up by their parents are dismissed first, at 2:33 p.m., followed by the bused students, at 2:35 p.m. For pre-kindergartners and kindergartners at Liberty, a school aide escorts the walkers and those being picked up to the designated waiting area in front of the school, while students who are bused are escorted to the back of the school and loaded onto their bus by their classroom teacher.
“It’s not an exact science, but ideally the buses should be leaving about 2:45 p.m.,” explained Liberty Elementary School Principal Scott Brown.
According to District Superintendent Dr. William Silver, “We have video of the corridor… You can see the aide leading walkers out. . . the little girl [Suarez] was not with the walkers. After about a two to three minute gap [in the video] their teacher walks out the busers and the little girl ends up at the back of the line.”
Silver then explained that Suarez seemed to look around, then waited for the teacher and the line of students to “disappear around the corner, then she [went] out towards where the walkers would go out.”
According to Silver, when the teacher began loading her students onto their respective buses, she realized that Suarez was missing and “notified the elementary school office” of the situation.
Shortly after, said Silver, “the office conducted an all-call” – or school-wide announcement on the PA.
According to Principal Brown, “it announced for the child to please come to the main office.”
Silver said, “The person who supervises the walkers discovered Suarez with the walkers.”
Added Silver, “We probably have close to 200 walkers daily, about 50 cars and of course the buses… a lot of commotion. On any given day, you can have up to 30 parents calling in with different [transport] arrangements for their children. It’s always a changing cast of walkers.”
As per Silver’s accounting of events, the staff member who discovered Suarez outside with the “walkers” then asked the little girl what she was doing there, to which Suarez replied that her mother was picking her up. Silver added, “The teacher then instructed the child where to stand and wait.” (The school designates yet another area for students waiting to be picked up.)
It is at this point when the school believes that Suarez took off on her 1.3-mile journey through Liberty, and though the school also maintains surveillance cameras outside of the school, Silver admitted, “We don’t have great video of that as the [outdoor] cameras rotate 360 degrees, but from there the assumption was that she left the school’s grounds.”
Just before 3:15 p.m., Veronica Planer said she saw Suarez walking near the entrance ramp to State Route 17’s exit 100.
“I was on my way to Monticello,” said Planer in an interview with the Democrat. “I was so shocked to see this little girl walking by herself….”
Planer pulled over and said that even before engaging Suarez, she made a call to 911. “While I called I had my daughter ask her where her mommy was.” According to Planer, and for reasons unknown, Suarez answered, “I don’t have a mommy.”
Planer said that soon after making her call to 911 a Liberty police officer arrived on the scene, and “He just scooped her up, put her in his car and took off.”
As to why she stopped, Planer explained, “I went through something similar to this and I would have hated to have seen anything happen to this little girl. I saw her walking by herself and just knew that something wasn’t right. Children are precious. I have three of my own and I would hope that if this ever happened to one of them someone would do the same for them. She [Suarez] was very lucky and something like this needs to never happen again.”
But little Serena did have a mommy, and Jackie Suarez says she believes her daughter’s allegation that her teacher told her that she was walking home last Tuesday.
According to Mrs. Suarez she received a call from the school at 2:55 p.m. asking her if her eldest daughter had picked up Serena at the school. “I said ‘No, my oldest daughter is home.’”
Continued Suarez, “So I asked them, ‘Are you saying that Serena is not on the bus? So they said, ‘Well, we’re not sure… we’ll call you back.’”
Suarez then explained that at 3 p.m. she called the school asking if her daughter had been located. “They said ‘No, she’s not on the bus and we cannot find her.’” Suarez said she was assured that the school would do everything they could, and that she was asked if she’d be “coming down to the school.”
Suarez said she waited at home for her son’s BOCES bus to arrive, while her husband and oldest daughter “ran” to the school to see about Serena.
“Then they [the school] called me at 3:15 and said that a lady had found her next to the exit to 17 East,” said Suarez. “They said she was going to be brought back to the school.”
Confronted with the school’s claim that it was her daughter who told her teacher that she wanted to walk home, Suarez is emphatic: “No,” she said. “She [Serena] has not once changed her story since all of this happened. She says that her teacher told her ‘You’re a walker today’ and we believe her.
Suarez maintained, “We raised her not to lie. We’ve always made sure that she’s known that if she lies to us that things will be much worse. I believe my little girl.”
Asked what she would like to see come of this, Suarez said, “I just want to be sure that this will not happen to any other parent or any other child. It’s the scariest thing in the world… It was a nightmare.”
As for Silver, he said, “I think what we had was a willful little girl who wanted to walk home… the school has done what it was supposed to do. I am not at all happy that a 6-year-old was able to wander off, but once discovered, our policies worked and she’s safe, which is most important here.”
Continued Silver, “The irony in this is that when Scott Brown took over the [elementary] school this year he felt the [dismissal] policy was too loose. They have since tightened it up. This shows us that we need to tighten it up further… It’s a balancing act, though, because the more security layers we put in place, the less efficient dismissal becomes.”

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