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Delta School mourning loss of Massena classmate

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MASSENA - Always laughing, happy and loved life were just some of the phrases used to describe 17-year-old Donald Bemis, who drowned Tuesday evening while swimming in the Grasse River with friends near Calvary Cemetery off Maple Street.

Comments from his school guidance counselor, principal, a teacher and a classmate, all from the now defunct Massena Central School Delta School of Choice, sounded strikingly similar.

“He was always happy and laughing,” said guidance counselor Van W. Alexander. “I know people always say that about everybody who has passed, but in this case it’s true.”

Principal Richard A. Norris agreed. “He was a happy kid. He really loved life. In some ways he was indescribable.”

Two people who were close with Mr. Bemis offered even deeper insight into the life of a young man one of them described as “our mascot.” “Donald and I had a lot in common,” said school mate Alicia M. Harvey. “We both got picked on a lot.”

Ms. Harvey, who will be a freshman in the fall, said at the end of this year with life back inside the halls of Massena High School looming ahead after the closure of the Delta School, an alternative education program, the pair made a vow to watch out for each other next year.

“At the end of the year we said we would have each other’s backs next year,” she said, fighting back tears. “I know he’ll still be there and have my back even though he won’t physically be there.”

Joseph Mittiga, who taught social studies at the Delta School, called Mr. Bemis the “most memorable student I’ve ever had.” “As long as I live, I’ll never forget Donald,” he said.

When asked how he was dealing with the loss of student, he replied, “I don’t know, I’ve never had to do this before.”

Mr. Mittiga then recalled sitting at home, alone on his couch thinking of Donald. Earlier Tuesday evening, Mr. Mittiga said he spent some time with another teacher from the Delta School sharing the memories of Mr. Bemis, who would have been a junior in the fall.

“He had a great sense of humor,” Mr. Mittiga said. “He was always laughing, even when you didn’t want him to.”

Mr. Mittiga said Mr. Bemis attended J.W. Leary High School and then spent one year in the high school before enrolling in the Delta School, where his life really turned around.

“I would say he didn’t have too many friends when he came to us,” Mr. Mittiga recalled. “But he made a ton of friends in the alt ed (Delta School) program. All of the kids would look out for him and help keep him organized. He kind of became our mascot.”

And while not everybody was always nice to him, Ms. Harvey said she never heard Mr. Bemis say a bad word about anyone.

“He was always really nice to everybody,” she said, adding that as they passed in the halls she would always say “What’s up Donald?” and he would smile back at her replying, “Not much Alicia.”

“I’m going to miss that smile,” she said.

Mr. Alexander said the death of a student from the “Delta School Family,” was the last thing students enrolled in the program needed to deal with.

“It’s sad, because not only are our kids dealing with the loss of their school, now they’re dealing with the loss of one of their classmates,” he said. “It’s a travesty.”

Mr. Alexander, who was joined by Mr. Norris, Superintendent Roger B. Clough II and Teaching Assistant Darcy LaBarge, paid a visit to Mr. Bemis’ mother Wednesday morning.

“His mother told us there were some other students with him,” Mr. Alexander said, noting there were two other students from the Delta School, as well as a former student of the Delta School swimming with him.

“They jumped in and tried to saved him, but they weren’t able to do so,” he said.

“In spite of our own grief, we have to put the focus on helping the kids,” Mr. Norris said. “That’s what the Delta School was all about.”

With an enrollment of roughly 60 students in grades seven through 12, Mr. Norris said teachers in the Delta School had the opportunity to better get to know their students than traditional classroom teachers.

“You really got to know all the students on a personal level,” he said. “This really is a tragedy.”

Mr. Clough said the district reached out to students and staff of the Delta School, as well as Mr. Bemis’ family.

“This morning myself, Mr. Norris, Mr. Alexander, and Mrs. LaBarge paid our respects to the mother and the family,” he said. “We told them that if they need anything from the school to contact Mr. Norris.”

Mr. Clough also noted that the district set up a “counseling center” at the junior high school for students and families who wanted to talk about what had happened.

Mr. Norris, who at times was at the center, said that was a great idea.

“We want to provide all the support that our children and everyone else needs,” he said.

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