Ridge View principal Marty Martin has suffered the loss of his share of high school students through the years to accidents and illness, including one terrible year at A.C. Flora when four students died, two to illness, one in a car wreck and another who collapsed on the basketball court.
But Martin said Tuesday nothing quite compares to the heartbreak and anxiety of waiting to learn the fate of missing 15-year-old sophomore Gabrielle Swainson.
“The not knowing just builds and builds and builds,” he said. “I’ve had runaways. I’ve never had a situation up front like this where there is evidence of foul play.”
Tuesday, Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott announced the arrest of a suspect in Gabrielle’s disappearance, a 52-year-old Elgin man, Freddie Grant, who was described as a family acquaintance.
Lott said Tuesday he remains hopeful that Gabrielle is alive — a sentiment Martin and the students and teachers who know Gabrielle hold to with fierce tenacity.
“They are going to stay hopeful,” Martin said. “I’m going to stay hopeful.”
Gabrielle, a newly minted JV cheerleader who is enrolled in the tight-knit bio-health academic magnet at Ridge View, went missing in the early morning hours of Aug. 18, shortly after her mother, Elvia, left the family home in Northeast Richland to go to her office to complete some work. According to the sheriff’s department, Grant is accused of taking Swainson, barefoot and in her pajamas, to his home, as evidenced by cell phone records and DNA. Investigators found bloody duct tape at the house.
Martin had nothing but praise for Lott and his team of investigators as the search lengthened into its second week.
They have kept Martin apprised of the ongoing investigation when they can, although he said the school had to exercise its own caution in releasing any information, for fear of compromising the inquiry.
Still, he has worked to tamp down runaway rumors, including speculation on Twitter that was patently false.
Tuesday, he asked his teachers not to stream Lott’s live video conference, updating the investigation. Instead, he filled in his teachers and staff on the information shortly afterward in a school email, asking them to identify students who may be in need of crisis counseling.
“I have a responsibility to take care of my kids here,” he said. Along with Ridge View’s school psychologist and guidance counselors, Richland 2 also has provided an on-site crisis management team to help with student and faculty needs.
Martin said he is particularly focused on the students in the bio-health magnet who are close to each other and serve as a “family” within the school. Gabrielle was one of about 30 sophomores in that magnet who traditionally take classes together, eat lunch together and socialize together.
As the teens await word on Gabrielle, he said the school is focused on providing them as much support as possible.
At times like these, he said, “the kids just need to have the opportunity to cry on each other’s shoulders, to comfort each other, to give each other hope,” he said.
At the school’s annual open house, set for Tuesday night, a moment of silence was planned for Gabrielle, he said, “with all the hopes and prayers that go with it.”
Meanwhile, Richland 2 superintendent Katie Brochu also issued an open letter to parents, students and community, expressing hope that Gabrielle would be found “safe and unharmed.”
“We continue to support the professionalism and heroic efforts of our law enforcement officials and our community, which has rallied behind efforts to reunite Gabrielle with her family, Brochu said.