Columbia County manhunt confusion reveals communication gaps

By: Lynnsey Gardner Email
By: Lynnsey Gardner Email

November 29, 2006

One man is in jail and another is still on the loose after several break-ins in Columbia County yesterday.

22-year-old Nicholas Brigham was arrested yesterday and charged with entering an auto. His bond is set for $5,375. Brigham is also wanted in Richmond County for aggravated battery.

Columbia County deputies are still looking for Christopher Michael Ciechan. He is wanted for breaking into cars.

The actions of those two men led to the lockdown of four public schools in Columbia County and confusion among the school board, the Columbia County Sheriff's Office and thousands of parents.

The new school safety manual compiled in response to yesterday's events isn't in affect just yet, but even if it had been, it probably wouldn't have helped. It doesn't address law enforcement issues going on outside the school that affect the school. As everyone learned yesterday, that is an issue that needs a plan.

It was a chaotic scene at South Columbia Elementary during the search for Christopher Michael Ciechan. The felony suspect was last seen running towards the school, and the sheriff's office asked South Columbia to lock down.

"It's simple," said Sheriff Clay N. Whittle. "If we have a search going on and a school is affected by that search, we pick the phone up and call the principal of the school. The principal is in charge of the school."

The chaos escalated because the search was underway at the same time children were arriving at school, which left some parents frantic. But the school board couldn't give out information to the parents, because the school board itself didn't know what was going on.

"The first call central office got was from a bus driver," said school board member Regina Buccafusco. "So nobody had a hold of what was happening at 6 a.m. or 7 a.m. at the central office."

"Our protocol with the school system is to notify the principal of that school, and we followed that yesterday," said Sheriff Whittle.

The sheriff's office notified South Columbia's principal almost an hour before the school called the central office.

"Maybe if the central office was called at 6 a.m., we wouldn't have had kids brought to the school. Timing is everything," Buccafusco said.

But during that time, the sheriff's office says they were busy with a manhunt.

"I'm all for better communication, but in a situation like that I'm still not going to call the school board," said Sheriff Whittle. "My officers and my dispatchers have plenty to do."

But what will be done to fix the problem in the future still remains unclear.

"What makes us better is if we acknowledge what happened and we become better because of it," said Lee Muns, who is running against Buccafusco to be chair of the school board. "And if it is lemons, we can get together, and let's make lemonade out of it."

The Columbia County Sheriff's Office says no one from the school board has called them today to try and talk about yesterday's situation. We did try to meet with Superintendent Tommy Price, but he did not return our calls.

Communicating with parents also seemed to be a big problem yesterday. The reverse 911 system that could have been used to alert parents to the situation is run through the sheriff's office, which shares the system with the Emergency Management Agency. The EMA says they would be happy to work with the schools developing a plan to notify parents in the future, but the school board would have to be in charge of it.

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