A well-known community activist who works with an after-school program at the city’s School 97 Harvey Austin Elementary School was found carrying a handgun at the school Thursday evening, ending a more than four-hour ordeal that left some children in tears and their parents questioning the school’s security.
Buffalo police said Dwayne Ferguson, 52, of Buffalo, was charged with two counts of criminal possession of a weapon, including having a loaded weapon on school grounds. Ferguson, longtime president of the MAD DADS Buffalo chapter, has worked with at-risk youth in after-school programs in various city schools for several years. He pleaded not guilty to the charges this morning in Buffalo City Court and was released on his own recognizance. Police said Ferguson has a pistol permit.
It was not clear late Thursday why Ferguson had the gun at the school. Police spokesman Michael J. DeGeorge said he was not suspected of having ill intent. Ferguson apparently is not an employee of the Buffalo School District but was involved in the after-school program at the East Side school, DeGeorge said.
That was little comfort to parents, dozens of whom stood outside in the bitter cold for hours trying to reach their children and demanding answers from police and school officials.
“I just thank God that not just my kids, but everyone’s kids, are safe,” said Melissa Maye, whose two daughters were in tears when they were released from the school shortly before 8 p.m.
The incident started at about 4:15 p.m. when an anonymous call was made to the office of the school on Sycamore Street “with the report of a person bearing a weapon on or near school property,” school district spokeswoman Elena Cala wrote in an email to School Board members.
Cala said the school staff “immediately followed protocol, placing a call to 911 and going into lockdown mode. All children were immediately physically and visually accounted for.”
Two calls regarding a man with a gun near the school were made to 911 at about that time.
The regular school day had already ended,but some students were still in the building for the after-school program. District records show that Harvey Austin’s after-school program is run in partnership with the Lt. Col. Matt Urban Community Center.
Children ranging from kindergarten to eighth grade were kept in the cafeteria while dozens of police officers, including a SWAT team and K-9 units, searched the school building. The school was surrounded by police cars and the Erie County sheriff’s helicopter hovered low overhead.
No one was allowed to leave the building, Cala said. “Students and possessions were checked, and students were boarded onto buses to be transported to a nearby school,” she said in a statement.
School staff also placed calls to parent homes to inform them what was going on, although many parents said they never heard from the school or district.
Police officials are confident that none of the students, teachers or staffers who were at the school were in danger at any point. And Cala said police will maintain a presence at the school for the rest of the week.
Meanwhile, frantic parents gathered outside school in subfreezing cold and snow, desperate for information.
“They need somebody out here telling us something,” said Renoda Pearson, the mother of an eighth-grader.
Many parents said they found out about the situation at the school from cell phone calls and text messages from their children – and they were upset that they hadn’t learned about what was unfolding from school or police officials first.
“Is she safe? What is going on there?” questioned Melissa Green, whose daughter, Misty Allen, 13, was among the children in the after-school program at the school who were locked inside.
One father, who said he took his son’s phone away as punishment this week, regretted the child did not have it to connect with him.
Once the search of the school was complete, police coordinated an effort to reunite children with their parents at the BUILD Academy on Fougeron Street. Students were loaded onto school buses at about 6:15 p.m. and arrived at BUILD about an hour later.
They were greeted there by dozens of parents who gravitated to the school to await their children’s arrival.
Some parents who did not have their own transportation got rides from friends or relatives, determined to get to their children.
Most parents were allowed to wait in the BUILD Academy for their children, and could attend a debriefing with police and school officials.
Police officers also planned to drive home children whose parents could not get to the school to get them.
William Putnam, however, chose to brave the cold and wait outside for his children. As the three buses loaded with children pulled up to the school, he pumped his fists in the air and cheered.
“We love you kids,” he yelled to the bus from the corner. “Be brave.”
“I’m just happy I got my son from them and we’re going home now,” William Syzmanski said as he left the school with his son. “There are no words for it.”