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Tracking is Easy in March

by Rita Argiros on February 11, 2009

The Woods at 1am (b&w)
Image by criana via Flickr

Runaway student becomes lost

March 2005.  Year 2 of my campaign to reduce the number of students who elope from the school, or at least keep them safer when they do leave.  It’s been a slow slog through the mud of tradition and inertia.  For about 15 years students had been leaving the The Family Foundation School.  More than 75% are back in 8 hours or less.   People viewed running away as part of the experience, part of the process for the 40-60 students every year who leave.  Most don’t have a plan, they get mad and impulsively run off campus.

Over the years, the few students who had got into serious trouble, didn’t get into trouble near the school.  It found them after they’d made it back to the cities and suburbs they called home.  I could get people to admit that there was a chance of injury in the woods that surrounded our campus, but I guess people felt the chance was slight enough.

I don’t want you to get the idea that we did nothing when a student took off.  We had adequate procedures. We called the state police, sent cars patrolling the roads and villages in our area.  And, by year 2 we were also routinely following the higher risk students into the woods. Several staff were doing just that when I left the campus at 4:30 PM on my way to take my EMT practical exam at the Hancock Fire Station.

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Great Swamp Winter
Image by Joseph Hoetzl via Flickr

It’s an early spring day in 2003.  Tom, the shift supervisor at the school (we call them the Senior Floor Person or just, “senior floor”) calls me.

“Amy Nusman just called. She’s driving up with her boyfriend to look for Chris.”

Christopher Nusman is 16.  He left the school yesterday at 3 PM and hasn’t turned up yet.  That’s a little unusual.  Most of the time parents hear from their students the first day, but not always. I couldn’t be more specific than that.   Back then, I couldn’t even tell you how many students run away each year and although I felt some unease every time we had a student out there,  I share the Family Foundation School culture and thought that sometimes running away with just part of the process, to be expected, something that we “deal with.”

As usual, we sent cars out to patrol the immediate area and the route into Hancock, the nearest town.  I couldn’t tell you if that was effective or not.  We didn’t keep track.

What I did know was that the general opinion among employees was that driving around didn’t work.

“The kids just dive into the bushes when they see a car. Its a waste of time.” was the commonly expressed sentiment.

There were also a smaller group of staff who liked the excitement of chasing after our students.  I was uneasy around both responses.  But the truth is that although I identified these feelings, my focus was elsewhere.   That would all change in the next few hours.

We had notified the State Police and faxed them all the information they needed to start a file.  Last night an officer stopped by to take a report. That is also routine. The police have picked up many of our students in the past.

Our relations with them are just “OK.”  They saw us as something between a nuisance and something to do to fill up a slow shift.   A few times, when I have dealt with the officers directly they have asked why I don’t put a fence around the campus.  And when I explain that that we see ourselves as a step down from that sort of facility. They give me a strange look.

This is the background noise in my head when I respond to Tom, “Why is Amy coming here, now?”  I’m tense.  Tom’s unspoken message is clear:  There is a problem.

“When Randal called her last night.” Tom begins, “He said we saw Chris run down toward the swamp.  That the swamp was dangerous, Chris could easily get stuck.  I think he said something about being lucky to make it across.”

I’ve got the picture now.  Even back then, before we start to do formal risk management at the school, I am known for my tendency to focus on doom and gloom.  My personal motto has always been Hope for the best. Plan for the worst. I tell you this so you will understand Randal better because even I think that Randall has a tendency to over dramatize.  I am besides myself now thinking about that poor mother–no wonder she is on her way up here.

“Well did anyone actually see Chris go into the swamp?” I ask.

“No, but he was heading that way.”  Tom says.

I am thinking to myself. If Randall  really thought the kid was in danger, why didn’t he call me?  He calls me when the toilets overflow……” I keep that to myself. Instead I say, “What else did Amy say?

“Shes gonna search the swamp herself. ”  Tom tells me. “She’s made up her mind.”

“Well, can you blame her?  She thinks Chris is frozen to death, or drowned or stuck in quicksand.”

“You aren’t going to let her, are you?”

“How am I going to stop her?  When will she get here?”  I say, shifting the subject back to something I can control.

“About 11”

“OK–I’ll be down to school before that. I’ll go out and help her look.” and I hang up the phone.

When Amy arrives I apologize for Randall’s insensitivity.  I tell her that he has clearly exaggerated the threat but that I will go with her to search the swamp to be sure.

All the shift supervisors were men and they were very concerned that Amy and I be safe.   You can imagine my emotional response to that, “I can take care of myself, thank you.”   But, sorting out the truth from the gender battle, I decide not to argue when another senior floor person told me very authoritatively that he was “taking us out.”

Truth was, in recent years the only times I had been in the woods I stuck to marked trails.  I’d never hunted and I wasn/t that familiar the school’s outlying property.

It was in the 40s when we left the school but colder last night.  If Chris spent the night in the woods, he must be cold now I thought.

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