ITHACA, N.Y.—An anticipated day of testimony in New York State Supreme Court ended without many definitive answers Wednesday, as only one member of the Ithaca City School District administration was called for questioning during a hearing about the shooting threat made on a school bus in late October.
The testimony was prompted by a situation that played out on Oct. 28, in which a student on a Friday after-school bus threatened to “kill everybody” on the bus the following Monday with a Glock 17 handgun stowed in the student’s room. A parent of one of the students on the bus called law enforcement about the incident the next day, on Oct. 29. Police searched the student’s room and found no weapon—during the investigation, the student said he disposed of it before police came.
During the subsequent extreme risk protection order proceedings, Judge Elizabeth Aherne questioned District Attorney Matthew Van Houten why the situation was reported to law enforcement by a student instead of a district official. After that initial hearing, Aherne was clearly upset by what she felt was a lack of appropriate reaction by the district, drawing parallels to school shootings that were foreshadowed by a threat or behavior that went neglected.
She requested Van Houten to subpoena ICSD Superintendent Dr. Luvelle Brown to explain the district’s reaction, and several more district officials were eventually instructed to appear as well.
While Brown, Deputy Superintendent Lily Talcott and Director of Human Resources Bob van Keuren were all apparently in attendance (only van Keuren was in the courtroom), only Transportation Director Elizabeth Fox was called from the district administration. Bus driver Kenneth Facey also testified about how he experienced the event.
Facey was first, detailing what played out on the bus that day. He recounted a story that was largely the same as has been reported: a student began yelling threats at other students, Facey and the bus aide, John Whaley, tried to intervene, the student briefly yelled at them before redirecting their ire at the other students again. The Ithaca Voice is not identifying the student alleged to have made the threats because they are a minor.
After a confrontation between himself and the student, Facey changed his route to drop the student home quickly and get them off the bus. He then dropped off one student, who seemed to be the main target of most of the threats, outside of their house instead of allowing them to walk from the bus stop to ensure they were safe.
Aherne questioned Facey about how he reacted to the situation unfolding. Facey said he communicated via radio with someone to tell them there had been a situation on the bus and to check if Fox would be there when he got back so they could talk. He did not disclose the actual details of the incident during that communication, he said, because he didn’t view it as that urgent—there was no actual weapon seen on the bus, Facey had known the threatening student for years, this student was known for emotional outbursts and Facey thought they were just “blowing off steam,” etc. There wasn’t a set policy or protocol Facey was aware of regarding threats being made on a school bus; he said there was a training one time for that sort of thing, but that was designed for classroom settings and wasn’t very applicable to school bus scenarios. Aherne pressed the point several times, but it appeared that was the extent of the training.
Still, threats had been made, so Facey and Whaley reported it to Fox as soon as they arrived back to the transportation office. Fox then called the student’s principal, who agreed that the student should be suspended from the bus for at least the following Monday, while the district investigated the incident. Fox also phoned the student’s mother and District Administration Officer Dan Breiman, but did not call law enforcement, according to her testimony that followed Facey’s.
The decision not to call police is what had previously provoked critical reactions from Van Houten and Tompkins County Sheriff Derek Osborne, which was followed by some sharp retorts from Ithaca City School District Board of Education members earlier this month.
Once police were notified separately by the other student’s parent the following day, they then made contact with Fox, who was told she should have made a police report about the incident, especially since a date and time had been declared. Fox said she believed the proper protocol for a bus situation was to consult the principal of the student’s school and report it to her superiors—in this case, Breiman. The police were not part of the equation at all, it appears, though the reason behind that decision was not explored during questioning by either Van Houten or Aherne.
Facey mentioned at the end of the questioning that as a result of the incident, he had been asked to resign/retire from his position and did so. His last day as a bus driver with ICSD is Jan. 31. In an interview with The Ithaca Voice after his testimony, Facey said he was fired because the district felt he did not handle the situation on the bus correctly. Facey said he did not fight the district’s decision and was happy for working the 25 years with the district that he had.
Fox’s brief questioning ended, and while Brown and Talcott were ready to appear according to ICSD’s attorney Kate Reid, Van Houten said he didn’t think their testimony was necessary. Aherne promptly called a recess, and when she returned several minutes later she ended the hearing by granting the ERPO. She remained vocally skeptical about the district’s response, but did not ask for any further testimony.
“It’s not clear to me that, without our law enforcement, the school [or school district] is capable of making a nuanced decision on this,” Aherne said in closing. “I wouldn’t roll the dice with the other children in the school or on the bus and get it wrong. That’s within their purview, and I hope they have a policy that addresses [it] soon.”