BRIDGEPORT -- Fighting off the bitter winter cold in her maroon medical scrubs and parka, Artrena Harris climbed off the No. 10 bus in front of a crowded Butler Business School on Wednesday morning and wondered what all the fuss was about.
Dozens of her classmates and a parade of news trucks clogged the parking lot of the school at 2710 North Ave., a stone's throw from the Fairfield line.
Harris hadn't heard the private vocational school she attended since May had closed without warning during the weekend, along with sister schools in Hamden and Hartford, leaving more than 1,200 students with an uncertain future and, in many cases, crushing student loan debt.
"So we don't have a school no more? Why?" the Bridgeport resident asked, clutching a book bag and purse, repeating the question when no one answered. "Why?"
Others had heard the 113-year-old school, which had been acquired in recent years by a for-profit firm, had gone under, but didn't believe it.
"There were rumors. I came to see for myself," said Jennifer Nowakowski, of Beacon Falls. She was eight months into a 13-month program that was going to put her on the path to a better paycheck.
Now, she has no diploma, no way to pay back thousands of dollars in student loans and no answers.
Meanwhile, Jane A. Ciarleglio, executive director of the Office of Higher Education, said she is working to find answers and another place for as many as 1,200 displaced students from the three closed schools to complete their studies.
"We have to meet with schools that have similar programs in the same geographical area. We have to know what our options are before we communicate with them," said Ciarleglio. The school offered three training programs: medical assistant/secretary, office information systems and phlebotomy.
So far, only about 80 people have accessed an online registry set up by the state, or called the toll-free number set up to take questions.
The state was notified of the abrupt closure by email on Sunday by Paul T. Kelly, listed as the finance executive for the Sawyer School, Butler's parent organization. The state has been unsuccessful in trying to reach Kelly and other school officials. Ciarleglio said her office has also been hearing from students in Rhode Island, leading her to believe the school's main branch in Pawtucket may also have closed.
That didn't stop several students, including Orlanda Strong, from collecting signatures and phone numbers on a petition in the school parking lot and driving them up to the school's headquarters in Rhode Island. Ciarleglio's office is in touch with the landlords of the Connecticut locations so they can get in and access student records.
The records are necessary for students to transfer and for the state to figure out what financial liability students may face.
Although it is not terribly uncommon for private occupational schools to close, Ciarleglio said it is rare for one to close that is a federal Title IV school, which means it was nationally accredited and allowed to give out federal financial aid.
"It is important for us to have the records because there are all kinds of financing mechanisms," Ciarleglio said. "Literally this will go case by case depending on the kinds of loans they had."
Many have loans in excess of $20,000, the cost to attend the school for a 13-month program.
Ciarleglio said if the school has any assets in the state, they could be seized. Because the school did not provide the required 60-day notice before closing, none of the participants in the business can ever open another private occupational school in the state again.
"If you don't close properly, you are done," she said.
State Attorney General George Jepsen said his office is in contact with the Office of Higher Education and will provide assistance as necessary as the matter progresses.
"We will evaluate whether other actions to protect students and the state are available and appropriate." said Jepsen, in an email through his office.
He added that the most immediate practical step for students is to contact the Connecticut Office of Higher Education, which has direct authority to assist students and to regulate occupational schools. The office website is www.ctohe.org. The number to call is 800-842-0229.