September 2011
August 21, 2011

Making school a safer place

Author: Catherine Henihan
Source: NYSUT United

By Catherine Henihan
Sept. 11, 2001
Murry Bergtraum High School
New York City, Lower Manhattan

I walked toward school as the sun was coming up over the East River, the World Trade Center at my back. As a laboratory specialist in the science department of a high school, I was on the early shift to prepare for the laboratory exercises and science demonstrations.

First period classes were in full swing when the principal announced that a plane had hit one of the World Trade Center towers. Our first thought: What a horrible accident. Shortly after the start of second period I was standing with one of my student interns when our building shook. Our eyes locked. We knew then that something was terribly wrong. The principal announced that students should follow the announcements to exit the building.

I placed my intern with an exiting class and returned to the lab to await instructions. They never came.

A science staffer came back to the preparation room for personal effects accompanied by a police officer who told us we should have already evacuated. He told us we had to leave lower Manhattan but we might not be able to use the Brooklyn Bridge. I lived in Brooklyn; the bridge was my way home. As we left the school we could clearly see the damage, fire and smoke.

We joined the crowds walking over the Brooklyn Bridge. One woman passed us running barefoot and carrying her high-heeled shoes. That reminded me that I forgot to change into my jogging shoes when I left the school. I looked back once at the towers. I started to cry at the thought of someone doing such a terrible thing to us. U.S. Air Force fighter jets flew overhead. Some people ran for cover.

When I arrived home my husband, who was out of town, called and told me both towers had fallen. My husband is a retired member of the New York City Fire Department. He said he thought perhaps more than 100 fire fighters lost their lives. This was too upsetting and I chided him for even thinking that. We found out later of course the number was more than three times what he initially feared.

The radio broadcast a call for volunteers at area hospitals anticipating large numbers of injured. My son and I walked to the Long Island College Hospital in Brooklyn. On the way we passed people walking from the World Trade Center, covered in white-gray dust from the fallen towers.

We were among hundreds of volunteers who lined up to register. I was assigned to the Emergency Room at Long Island College Hospital to answer calls from people desperately wanting to know if their loved ones were there. I was given a list of patients who had been admitted; unfortunately, I had to tell all of the callers that the person they were looking for was not here.

When I returned to school, my colleague told me how she and other staff members came upon our students with disabilities who were stranded that day. The school buses could not come and take them home. Staff members pushed students in wheelchairs through the streets to get them home safely.

When I thought about the response in our school on Sept. 11, I was upset that some staff and students on the third floor were not notified to evacuate. The process did not work. The chain of command was broken.

What was the alternate plan for students with disabilities? Was it a flaw in the process or panic? Was it that one person didn't follow the protocol? What was the protocol? I voiced my concerns to the principal.

I knew that if I complained about the problem, I should offer to work on a solution. I joined our School Safety Committee and remained a member until I retired.

It was after Sept. 11 that the New York City Department of Education really enforced school safety plan implementation. One issue was to be sure staff assigned to assist were indeed still working in the school, and not retired or transferred.

In our school we made sure the daily attendance list of limited-mobility students was easily accessible in an emergency.

While on the school health and safety committee, I proposed adding to the school safety plan the chemical inventory list and emergency procedures for chemical spills, and releases for small spills. At the beginning of each term I conducted a safety walk, reminding science staff of locations and use of safety equipment, material safety data sheets, safe chemical storage, etc.

Hopefully, I left the school a safer place to learn and work for staff, students and especially for students with special needs.

Catherine Henihan is a retired member of the United Federation of Teachers. She is trained in chemical emergency spill response through the UFT and the AFT, and now trains laboratory workers, teachers and other staff. She also works part time for the UFT training lab specialists working in junior high and high schools in New York City.