morrigirl: (TakeOffThatTie)
[personal profile] morrigirl
This story is all over the news. On June 22nd, twelve year old Nicole Suriel, a seventh grade student at the Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science, and Engineering, went with the rest of her class on a trip to Long Beach. While playing in the water she got caught in the undertow and drowned. It was later discovered that not only had the teacher failed to obtain the required parental permission slips to take the class to the beach, but she allowed the children, many of whom did not know how to swim, to go in the water even though there were no lifeguards on duty and signs telling swimmers not to go in the water.

I wish I could say I was shocked, but the truth of the matter is New York City public schools often suck at keeping tabs on students during class trips, and many times staff do not plan for, or even really consider, all the things that could go wrong. I know from first hand experience. During a class trip back in seventh grade, I was Nicole Suriel for a few hours.

I went to an "alternative" middle school, one of the many that started popping up all over the City in the early 90's as an answer to the overcrowded, under-staffed primary, intermediate, and high schools. The year I started middle school was also its first year in existence, and I was one of only sixty students. When I started seventh grade the following year, total enrollment had increased to about one hundred students, and there were about seven or eight teachers.

That spring the entire school took a trip to Central Park to go bike riding. Though I didn't realize it at the time, looking back I can see a ton of problems with this trip right off the bat. First, the choice of activity. The administrators assumed that all the students knew how to ride a bike. Second, the fact that it was an all school trip. With every single student and teacher on the trip there was no one left behind the mind the school. Every student had to go on the trip whether they wanted to or not. Staying behind was not an option.

I didn't know how to ride a bike and I didn't have any desire to learn, so I knew from the get go that I wouldn't be participating in the prescribed activity. I wasn't worried though. I figured I'd just walk along behind the pack of bike riders, and that maybe one of the teachers would walk with me to keep me company. I had this idea that the bikers would peddle slowly - take in the scenery, enjoy the weather, smell the roses - kind of like Kermit and Miss Piggy in Muppets Take Manhattan. I didn't think I would have any problem keeping up.

We went down to the Central Park bike rental facility on west 57th, and all the students and teachers got their bikes. It wasn't until after all the bikes had been rented that the principal realized she had two students who didn't know how to ride. It was a contingency she hadn't planned for. Her solution was to send all the other students and teachers ahead on the bike path, and she would stay behind with me and the other girl who couldn't ride and teach us how. Once we'd gotten the hang of it, the three of us would catch up with the rest of the group. I told the principal I didn't want to learn and that I would be fine just walking along behind the other bike riders. She asked me if I was sure, I said yes, she said okay, and turned her attention to the girl who actually wanted to learn how to ride.

As soon as that decision was made the bike riders took off, and I mean they booked it! All the students and teachers hit the asphalt as if they had a herd of fire breathing dragons on their tail. I started walking down the path behind them, but I lost sight of them within a matter of minutes. And then I was all alone in Central Park.

At twelve I'd never been in Central Park by myself. I'd always gone with one of my parents, and they'd only ever taken me to the Sand Park up on 93rd Street. Beyond that Central Park was uncharted territory to me. I didn't know where I was or where I was supposed to be going, so I just continued walking up the bike trail. I figured if I just kept walking, eventually I'd wind up back at the bike rental place. (I had no idea the Central Park bike path is 6.1 miles long.)

So, I walked. And I walked. And I walked. I walked alone in Central Park for almost three hours straight. I never came across any students or teachers from my school. It wasn't unpleasant. It was a nice day. There were plenty of people out and about, and no one tried to mess with me or anything. I never felt like I was in any danger. But, the fact is between the hours of 9:00 and 3:00 I was supposed to be under the care of the school, and due to poor planning and a lack of vigilance, my guardians let me wander off by myself in an unfamiliar area where I could have easily been kidnapped, raped, molested, or otherwise assaulted.

By 3:00 PM I was exhausted. My legs hurt, my feet were sore, school was officially out, and I wanted to go home. But I didn't know where I was, so I had no choice but to keep on walking. And then a fucking miracle occurred. I saw the Sand Park off to my left. I knew how to get home from the Sand Park. And because I was tired and school was officially out, I decided to go ahead and walk home. I figured all the other students and teachers had probably made it back to the bike rental facility and been dismissed so there was no point in continuing to walk the bike path when everyone else had gone home already.

I left the bike path and circled around the Sand Park. I walked over to Broadway, went down to 88th, and up to my mom's apartment. By the end of the day I'd walked a little over two miles, easily the longest distance I'd ever walked at that time. When I got home I told mom all about my day. She called the school immediately, not to chew them out - for some reason it didn't even occur to her to be angry - but to let them know I was all right. She had to leave a message because, since everyone had one on the trip, there was no one there to pick up the phone.

Turns out all the teachers were out looking for me. After making it back to the bike rental and doing a head count they finally realized I was gone. The teachers spent an hour combing the trail before returning to the school and calling my mom to tell her they'd lost me.

They were relieved to hear that I was safe at home. I can't imagine how fucking terrifying it must have been for the principal to make that call. How do you tell a parent that their child has gone missing on your watch? How do you explain that? How CAN you?

At the time, I didn't see what the big deal was. I went home because I honestly didn't think anyone would notice I was gone. I mean, I told the principal I planned to walk behind the bikers. She said it was okay. And I hadn't seen anyone come looking for me, so when 3:00 rolled around I just assumed I could leave.

I remember sitting in creative writing class the next day. Mr. Cibula was unusually somber. On any other day he would have been bouncing all over the room telling corny jokes, but that afternoon he sat with his hands folded on his desk. Once we were all seated, silent, and ready to hear about our writing assignment for the day, he looked up and said, "I've been thinking a lot about death." Shit, I thought. He monologed about the nature of mortality for a bit before finally giving us our writing assignment. He looked directly at me and announced, "Today I want you all to tell me what you want written on your tombstone." That's when I realized what a big deal it was for me to have gone off alone. Mr. Cibula had been worried. He was one of the teachers who had bicycled up and down the path looking for me. He had obviously thought about what would happen if I turned up dead. He had wondered what to say about a twelve year old girl who wasn't very good at school work but loved to write.

You could say I should have known better than to wander off. But, like I said, since I'd told an adult what I was doing before I left, I didn't think I actually had wandered off. And once school was out I honestly thought it was okay to go home. To my mind everyone had abandoned me, so why did it matter what I did?

There were so many steps my school could have and should have taken to assure the safety of all the students.

1) They should not have assumed all the students knew how to ride a bike. They should have found out before hand how many of us did and didn't know how to ride. There were only one hundred of us. Finding out would have been as easy as asking each teacher to poll their home room.

2) They should have come up with a plan for what to do with kids who did not know how to ride (and maybe didn't want to) before ever leaving the school. They could have chosen to send those children home early, or had them stay behind at the school with a teacher or administrator and engage in some other fun activity, like watching a movie.

3) They should have left at least one administrator behind to mind the office. Doing so would have allowed for easier communication between my mother and the teachers who were out looking for me. Someone would have been there to answer the phone when my mother called the school, and could have relayed her message to the teachers if they called to check in after discovering I was gone.

I am very angry about Nicole Suriel's death. She died because her school teachers and administrators did not plan a class trip well enough. As with my class trip to Central Park, there are so many simple things the school could have done to ensure the safety of their students, like finding out how many students didn't know how to swim (and perhaps coming up with an alternative activity for those students. Or better yet deciding not to go to the beach at all if there was a significant number of students who could not swim), making sure there were LIFEGUARDS on duty at the beach, making sure every single adult accompanying the class knew how to swim, and not allowing the students who couldn't swim to go in the water.

Yes, accidents happen. Life isn't foolproof. But when fatalities occur in school administrators should at least be able to honestly say they did everything humanly possible to ensure the safety of their charges. Anything less is unacceptable.
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January 2012

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