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Nicole Suriel, 12 Years Old, Drowns While On A Trip With Her NYC School, Columbia Secondary School In New York City
An investigation by Richard J. Condon, the city’s Special Commissioner of Investigation, found that officials at the school did a poor job planning the trip and failed to obtain the required parental consent forms. The teacher chaperoning the trip should have noticed a sign clearly indicating that the beach was closed to swimmers and that no lifeguards were on duty, according to a report on the investigation that was released Wednesday. The report also said that the teacher knew that several students on the trip could not swim, and revealed how close Nicole came to being saved. Editor Betsy Combier says that this points to the core problem of the NYC public school system: lack of accountability for politically appointed principals who do not consider the health, safety and welfare of the students - and staff - inside their buildings. Everyone is in danger.
In New York City, principals rule their schools, no questions allowed.

Notice that I did not write "no questions asked". The reason is, parents, teachers, school staff are questioning the policies of the NYC Board/Department of Education that give total power to the "fuhrer" or leader, and if anyone questions that power, he/she is punished. For example, if a parent raises questions about grade changes, violations of regulations or the Law or other potentially problematic issue, this parent may find him/herself banned from entering the school building and his/her child with a failing grade. A tenured teacher who asks questions may get an immediate observation with a "U" rating, and an untenured teacher is simply fired. A student who refuses to be quiet about wrong-doing will be suspended for anywhere from a week to a year.

The Columbia Secondary School has, my sources say, been under the despotic rule of Principal Jose Maldonado-Rivera for far too long. One parent got so worried about the lack of parent permission slips for trips that she pulled her daughter out.

Now, Nicole Suriel is dead. She didn't have to die, the policies of immunity for principals in NYC public schools has to stop.

Betsy Combier

July 15, 2010
At School in Harlem, Resentment Over Girl’s Drowning on a Field Trip

As the academic year at Columbia Secondary School in Harlem drew to a close, students, parents and teachers reeled from the death of a 12-year-old pupil on a class field trip to a beach last month.

But feelings of grief have turned into anger after an inquiry by city investigators that faulted the middle school for the way it had organized and supervised the outing, which ended with the drowning of Nicole Suriel on a Long Island beach that had been closed and where no lifeguard was on duty.

Hours after a report by the city’s Special Commissioner of Investigation was released on Wednesday, Erin Bailey, the first-year teacher who chaperoned the trip, was fired, and the school’s principal and assistant principal were disciplined.

The fallout has bred resentment among some teachers who say they believe that the two administrators deserved harsher punishments. The assistant principal, Andrew Stillman, who organized the trip, was demoted from his administrative role but will remain a teacher. The principal, Jose Maldonado-Rivera, faces probation. Both men will quite likely remain at the school, officials said.

The drowning and its aftermath have also unearthed long-simmering tensions between some teachers and Mr. Maldonado-Rivera, who they say can be an unfair and unyielding boss.

And though the new school year is weeks away, some teachers say it is hard to believe that the tension will easily dissipate.

“I think the teacher was a scapegoat in order to keep the administration’s jobs intact,” said Chris Jones, who teaches social studies at the school. “It’s symptomatic of the entire attitude — all the weight and blame is placed on teachers. There was none of ‘This is what you should be doing, this is what you should not be doing.’ We were all on our own for these trips.”

The investigators said Ms. Bailey should have noticed a sign on the beach noting that there was no lifeguard present and criticized the school for failing to obtain required permission slips and not planning properly. Mr. Maldonado-Rivera told investigators that as principal, he was ultimately responsible for the trip.

Current and former teachers at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science and Engineering said Wednesday that they felt enormous pressure to organize field trips, one of the school’s cornerstone activities. But throughout the year, they said, there was never sufficient training or enough adult chaperons.

Dana Ligocki, a former English teacher, recalled a trip in 2008 to the Hudson River with 2 chaperons for 32 students to collect water samples. Education Department regulations require that there be an adult chaperon for every 10 students on field trips.

Ms. Ligocki left the school in February in part because she did not want to be at the school during the month of field trips in June.

“I feared having to go through that again,” she said. “This is not a one-time event; this is a pattern. I always thought something could happen, though I never imagined it being this awful.”

Ms. Ligocki said she complained of other safety hazards at the school, like allowing hundreds of students to walk down five flights of stairs to the gym unsupervised. She said several physical education classes were taught by college interns rather than certified teachers in Mr. Maldonado-Rivera’s effort to expand sports offerings.

“The faculty are so outraged, not specifically by the incident even,” said Chance Nalley, a math teacher and the chapter chair of the teachers’ union at the school. “We are outraged that we had been so patient and long-suffering, and we’re mad that we didn’t deal with things sooner.”

Mr. Maldonado-Rivera said in an e-mail message that he could not comment.

Students go through a competitive admission process to attend the school on West 123rd Street, near Columbia University. The school has produced stellar academic results since it opened three years ago, and several teachers, including Mr. Nalley, have received awards.

Several teachers said that while Mr. Maldonado-Rivera had “incredible vision” as a main architect of the school, his skills as an administrator were lacking.

Several teachers have left the school, frustrated that they did not have enough support from the administration, which they said would constantly demand that they take on more responsibilities and work longer hours — often without extra pay.

“I worked 12-hour shifts, which was not enough for Jose, and he went so far as to ask me to come on the weekend,” said Carla Cota, who left the school after two years to teach at a private boarding school in Tucson. “He made it clear that if that couldn’t happen, he couldn’t foresee my future at the school.”

Roughly 10 teachers filed unrelated complaints about Mr. Maldonado-Rivera with the United Federation of Teachers after the drowning on June 22. Mr. Nalley said he was upset that those complaints had not been part of the investigation, but union officials said they had not yet forwarded them to the city.

Mr. Nalley sent an e-mail message this week to the city schools chancellor, Joel I. Klein, asking that those complaints also be investigated. Natalie Ravitz, a spokeswoman for Mr. Klein, said the department would examine those complaints.

But parents who implored Mr. Klein to leave the administration in place said they were satisfied with the outcome and hoped Dr. Maldonado-Rivera would begin the year by addressing the issues head-on.

July 14, 2010
Teacher Fired Over Field-Trip Drowning of Girl, 12

A teacher was fired and two administrators were disciplined on Wednesday after an inquiry into the drowning of a 12-year-old girl on a field trip found fault with a Harlem school’s planning and supervision of the trip.

The girl, Nicole Suriel, a sixth grader, was one of 24 students on a class trip June 22 to Long Beach, on Long Island, from Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science and Engineering, a middle school on West 123rd Street near Columbia University.

An investigation by Richard J. Condon, the city’s Special Commissioner of Investigation, found that officials at the school did a poor job planning the trip and failed to obtain the required parental consent forms. The teacher chaperoning the trip should have noticed a sign clearly indicating that the beach was closed to swimmers and that no lifeguards were on duty, according to a report on the investigation that was released Wednesday. The report also said that the teacher knew that several students on the trip could not swim, and revealed how close Nicole came to being saved.

“Nicole Suriel’s death was a tragedy,” the report concluded. “Certainly Columbia Secondary School personnel did not intend to cause her harm. Nevertheless, there was a lack of adequate planning by the principal and the assistant principal, a failure to provide a sufficient number of adults to supervise the children at the beach and poor judgment by the teacher in charge who either failed to realize that there were no lifeguards on duty or failed to recognize the additional danger presented by their absence.”

Natalie Ravitz, a spokeswoman for the schools chancellor, Joel I. Klein, said in a statement that disciplinary action was warranted based on the report.

The trip was chaperoned by Erin Bailey, a first-year English teacher and former lifeguard, along with her boyfriend, Joseph Garnevicus, a former city teacher who could not swim, and Victoria Wong, a 19-year-old college intern at the school.

Ms. Bailey, who was still on probation, was fired. The school’s assistant principal, Andrew Stillman, who helped organize the trip, will be removed from his administrative position but will remain a tenured city teacher.

Mr. Stillman, the report said, obtained approval for the trip from the principal, Jose Maldonado-Rivera, but did not distribute permission slips.

Ms. Ravitz said that city officials could not easily remove Dr. Maldonado-Rivera because he had tenure, but that they were moving to place him on two years of probation while he remained head of the school. Mr. Maldonado could not be reached Wednesday.

Both Mr. Maldonado-Rivera and Mr. Stillman told investigators that they had assumed the beach would have lifeguards.

The day before the trip, Mr. Stillman sent parents an e-mail message telling them, “We’re headed to the beach tomorrow.” The message instructed students to “come at 8 a.m. dressed to swim and play in the sun.”

The group took the Long Island Rail Road to Long Beach, then walked a quarter-mile to the boardwalk. Along the way, according to the report, the group would certainly have passed large signs that read “Beach closed 11 p.m.-5 a.m.,” “No lifeguard on duty” and “No swimming or bathing.”

Both Ms. Bailey and Mr. Garnevicus declined to speak with investigators, citing their Fifth Amendment rights after investigators refused to grant them criminal immunity, the report said.

A copy of the report was sent to the Nassau County district attorney’s office.

The 19-page report was based on the accounts of Mr. Stillman, Mr. Maldonado-Rivera, Ms. Wong and eight students who went on the trip.

The students, none of whom were identified, gave roughly the same account of what happened once they arrived at the beach: Ms. Bailey warned the students not to go too far into the water and said that those who could not swim were not to go in past their waists. One 11-year-old student said she had noticed a “no lifeguard on duty” sign on a lifeguard chair.

The report painted a harrowing picture of how quickly a fun-filled beach outing turned into a nightmarish struggle to pluck students from rough waters.

Nicole and several other students were standing in water that rose between their knees and waists when they were overcome by rough waters and carried out by a riptide; they screamed for help.

Both Ms. Bailey and Ms. Wong went into the water. Ms. Wong pulled out at least four students, and Ms. Bailey pulled out at least one before the water slammed her against a jetty.

At least three unidentified people tried to rescue Nicole, and one of them, a man, managed to grab her by the wrist. But then the man went under the water, and when he resurfaced, Nicole had disappeared, the report said.

The rest of the students sat crying on the beach as Nicole remained missing for more than an hour. Long Beach officials eventually found her on the other side of the jetty.

The report describes a last-minute decision to send the class to the beach as a reward for raising money in a school walk-a-thon. Mr. Stillman chose Long Beach, he told investigators, because he had been there with his family and knew it was easy to get to on public transportation.

He did not go on the trip himself, he told investigators, because he had end-of-the-year administrative duties to address.

He said that he was not concerned that Mr. Garnevicus could not swim, because he believed lifeguards would be on the beach.

The report noted that students from another Manhattan public school had, coincidentally, also been at Long Beach that day. The group had 51 children, from grades two through five, and 24 adult chaperons.

After Nicole was reported missing in the water, the report said, Dr. Maldonado-Rivera asked Mr. Stillman if there were lifeguards at the beach. Mr. Stillman then called Ms. Wong to find out, and Ms. Wong responded “apparently not.”

The Columbia Secondary School is one of the city’s few school buildings with a pool. While the school offers a swimming class, the report said Nicole had not taken the course.

© 2003 The E-Accountability Foundation