A married Buffalo teacher had been repeatedly warned about an "inappropriate" relationship with a student in the two weeks before she and the 14-year-old boy disappeared overnight Monday, school officials said Tuesday.
"We warned the teacher about her behavior, initially restricted and then eliminated her contact with the student and, finally, suspended her for her noncompliance with our instructions," Cederick Ellis, director of South Buffalo Charter School, said in a statement Tuesday.
The teacher, Cara Dickey, 29, a mother of three from Clarence Center, "was deceitful and lied to us repeatedly, and now she is going to have to answer to the authorities for that," Ellis continued.
Dickey, who had been suspended with pay and escorted out of the school Monday morning after she was caught text-messaging her student, was found sleeping in her white Ford Escape in Springville on Tuesday morning by state troopers.
At about the same time, the student, Nicholas G. DeJesus, 14, of West Seneca, was found wandering around a Hamburg mall.
The boy was reunited with his worried family at a Buffalo police station, and Dickey was questioned for several hours by Buffalo Police Sex Offense Squad detectives before she was released.
Now, authorities are trying to determine what happened Monday night as well as the extent of the relationship between Dickey and the teenager.
No charges had been filed as of Tuesday night.
"We are relieved, and we're also grateful that our student was found safe and reunited with his family," Ellis said at a news conference Tuesday afternoon at the eight-year-old charter school on South Park Avenue.
"However, I also must emphasize that we are dealing with a very highly complex and fluid situation that no one fully understands," he said.
Ellis spoke to reporters in the hallway of the K-8 school, where students dress neatly in navy polos and khakis. Drawings of planets and stars decorated the wall behind Ellis, underscoring the tender age of the students at the school. Teachers and other faculty watched the news conference, stunned by the situation involving one of their own.
Dickey was described by school officials as popular and highly regarded by students and colleagues alike.
There is a Facebook account with her name on it, with many high school-age youths, boys and girls, listed among her friends.
Dickey went to Buffalo State College and earned her master's degree from Walden University, an accredited online institution, according to her school Web site.
She started at South Buffalo Charter School in 2003 as a substitute teacher and later was hired full time.
According to the school Web site, Dickey enjoys skiing, going to Sabres games, watching the Pittsburgh Penguins, New York Rangers and New York Yankees, and playing with her kids, who are ages 8, 4 and 2.
Nicholas is an eighth-grader from West Seneca who is set to graduate from South Buffalo Charter on June 27. He had attended the school for several years and has siblings at the school as well.
The situation between Dickey and Nicholas began coming to light about two weeks ago when two teachers went to the school's assistant director to report that they'd witnessed "what they felt was inappropriate behavior for a teacher with a student," Ellis said.
At the time, Dickey had been mentoring Nicholas. Ellis added that his parents knew that she was spending extra time with the teenager.
Ellis brought Dickey into his office to discuss her colleagues' concerns about her behavior and told her she must "conform to the conduct standards outlined in our teacher handbook."
At that point, Ellis said, Dickey was an employee in good standing, so there was nothing more he could do beyond reprimanding her.
After the initial report from the two teachers, school officials started monitoring Dickey.
They decided to call her in for a second, more formal meeting. On June 9, she met with school officials with her union representative present.
"She was told in the strongest terms that she must change her behavior and be above suspicion with regard to this student," Ellis said of the meeting.
Dickey was "told directly to have no further contact with the student."
Dickey "denied that anything inappropriate was going on," Ellis said.
Then on Friday, the upper-grade students, including Nicholas, went on a field trip to an amusement park in Canada. Dickey was among eight chaperones accompanying them.
Dickey was once again told Nicholas was not to be in the group she was in charge of and that she was not to have any contact with the boy.
It's not known whether there was any kind of contact between Dickey and Nicholas on the trip.
Then on Monday, school officials observed Dickey and Nicholas separately sending text messages.
Nicholas' cell phone was seized, and officials allegedly discovered messages from Dickey on the phone that "represent inappropriate expressions of affection between an adult and a middle-school student."
The messages were not sexual in nature but did appear to cross a line of appropriateness, sources said. They also provided proof that Dickey had directly disobeyed an order not to contact the boy.
Dickey was suspended with pay and escorted out of the school at 10:45 a.m.
Sometime between 1:30 and 2 p.m., Nicholas sneaked out of the school. Officials realized he was missing and called the boy's parents and 911.
School officials have not yet determined if or how they were able to contact each other after Dickey left and before they were found separately.
Charles P. Ewing, a forensic psychologist and University at Buffalo law professor, pointed out that some inappropriate teacher-student relationships don't turn sexual.
"Sometimes, they don't cross the line sexually, but they're still inappropriate," said Ewing, who was speaking in general about these kinds of cases. "[The teacher] had enough sense not to pursue it sexually, but didn't have enough sense to avoid developing an intimate and emotional relationship with the student."e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com