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SNARLING SNOW: Districts don't have plans for stuck buses, kids stuck in school

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Posted at 5:49 PM, Oct 05, 2017
and last updated 2017-10-06 08:28:27-04

Mention 'last January's snow' to anyone around West Seneca and images of snarled traffic and stuck children holding help signs come to mind.

It was a snow storm dubbed "the perfect storm" by some.  Snow fell hard and fast during afternoon dismissal at West Seneca elementary schools.  Workers were sent home early from downtown Buffalo.  Traffic was a nightmare for so many.  But eight-year-old Izzy Bucki is one of the Allendale Elementary School students who actually made it home during the storm.

 
Watch our complete story for television here

Some students were stuck on buses for hours.  They were trapped in traffic because of accidents and the accumulating snow.  Others were stuck in school into the early morning.

"When I watched the news in the morning, I saw two of my friends at 2 a.m. getting back to their houses," Izzy said.  She said she was thinking "That they were really scared and missed their mommy and daddy."

Jennifer Bucki is Izzy's mother.  

"Thinking about those other kids, we prayed for them as soon as we heard there were kids stranded," she said.

She was concerned for their wellbeing and said there a plan needed to be in place to deal with this situation.  "I don't know that any school has a plan like that," Bucki said.

Most district-level plans for snow are basic and have few details about an actual plan. No specifics are offered.

New York State education law mandates every district have a school safety plan that prepares administrators for a natural disaster. 

Included in that definition of 'natural disaster' is fire, flood, earthquake, hurricane, torando, landslide, mudslide, chemical accident and war, among others.  Snow is never mentioned.  

Bucki said that was of concern.  "Look where we live," she said.  "We get lake effect snow daily sometimes.  Think about it!"

Even though there's no explicit mention in the law, the state told us, "School Safety Plans should take into account weather emergencies..."  

Most district-level plans for snow are basic and have few details about an actual plan.  No specifics are offered.  

"Looking forward, I suppose it would lead to the question, 'should the law change' to specifically include snow," questioned State Senator Patrick Gallivan.

Gallivan represents southern Erie County.  He is the vice-chair of the Senate Education Committee.

"I would say at this point, I don't know that is necessary," Gallivan said.  "I say that because of the reactions of local school districts and how responsible they have been and what we've seen in recent times."  

 
Andy Parker explains the forecast for January 5, 2017, showing his call for a large amount of snow.

Gallivan said you have to allow for the "local planning and for local plans."

West Seneca Interim Superintendent Matthew Bystrak calls it a framework.  He was not leading school safety efforts last school year.

"In terms of how to operationalize it and take it form a piece of paper to reality, I think it's going to have to depend on the individual circumstance," Bystrak said.

In speaking with area superintendents, we found most districts don't have concrete, formal or written plans in place, to deal with students stuck on buses, or in schools. 

Around West Seneca, in the Iroquois school district, administrators say a plan would be developed based on the situation.  They are prepared with food for a week and have a back up generator that was recently upgraded, however, if kids were stuck in school.

The snarling snow did force some changes in West Seneca Schools. See those changes here.

In Hamburg, administrators say they adapt safety plans to what's happening.  Administrators say the district is ready to house kids for three days, with food and medical supplies, like Epi-Pens.  They are also prepared to cook in the event of a power failure.

In Frontier, which had similar issues to West Senca last January, Former Superintendent Bret Apthorpe says he held unannounced run-throughs, to make sure staffers could access food and medicine cabinets to ensure student safety.

"We go above and beyond what the state mandates.  I mean, we're in the real world," Apthorpe said.  "It's unnerving because no one wants to have kids-- elementary kids--for five, six, seven hours because they can't get home."

East Aurora district administrators say they have to look at the situation to make a plan.  We've learned there are radios in all buses, which are contracted out, to allow drivers to be in constant contact with transportation staffers.  Some buses have GPS. 

"You've got to do it right away...because everyone is on social media"

In the Cleveland-Hill school district, administrators say it's hard to have plans for plans.  In other words, their plans are situational.  As conditions change, administrators say situational plans change.  There are food and water reserves, with a generator on the main campus.  That site serves as a shelter for the community in an event where a shelter is needed.

In Niagara Falls, a spokesperson said the idea is to keep kids out of those situations.  They are careful of closing, according to the spokesperson, because of weather.  "Chances are if the weather looked dicey, we'd close," the spokesperson said.

The reality is, Apthorpe said, this is the new normal and explains communication is key to alleviating parents' concerns.

"You've got to do it right away...because everyone is on social media," Apthorpe said.

On social media, West Seneca administrators had little to say that January day.  

The first update was posted on Facebook around lunch: after school activites were cancelled.  The next facebook update didn't come for nearly nine hours, saying that kids were still stuck on buses-- and still on the road.

"I think we're going to continue to work to see how much information is a good amount of information to put out there," Bystrak said. "I'm going to say I think we could have communicated a little bit sooner -- and that's something everyone at the table agreed on."

The Buckis, Jennifer and Izzy, can only see what these stuck students were going through in yearbook pictures, under the heading 'snowed in, having fun.'

"The teachers did a very good job of keeping them comfortable but still, to be a parent in that situation and want your child home and to not have them there is not cool," Bucki said.

Despite his initial reaction, Gallivan said he will meet with school districts in his constituancy and will see where they stand on the issue.  

If you think the state law should be changed or need to be modified, you should take action by calling your elected state leaders.