rapid response

Student injured in New York City terror attack returned to school the following day

PHOTO: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photo Office
Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo stand in front of the school bus mangled in Tuesday's attack.

On Tuesday, a man sped a pickup truck down bike lanes in Lower Manhattan, killing eight people and wounding over a dozen others before ramming into a yellow school bus, temporarily trapping two students inside.

On Wednesday, one of those students, a 16-year-old who had suffered minor injuries, insisted on returning to school. He wanted to keep his perfect attendance record.

But there was a problem: “The bus actually didn’t pick him up, thinking he wouldn’t be there,” said schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, who told the story Thursday at a press conference near the site of the attack. So the boy’s mother called for a car to take him from Brooklyn to his Manhattan school.

“When I spoke to him yesterday,” Fariña continued, “and this is something I’m never going to forget in terms of my experience as chancellor, he said to me: ‘I told myself I’m going to be fine because a lot of people want to help me.’ That’s what New York is all about.”

Fariña added that the other student who was on the bus had gone through surgery but was “on the mend.” Two adults on the bus, including the driver, were expected to recover.

On Thursday, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Fariña applauded the response from a handful of schools in Lower Manhattan to what has been described as the deadliest act of terror in New York City since 9/11. The schools swiftly moved into “shelter in place” mode, a protocol where classes are supposed to continue as scheduled, but staffers seal the entrances and exits.

“I think they handled a very tough situation exceptionally well,” de Blasio said.

Tuesday’s attack ended just as some students from Stuyvesant, one of the city’s elite specialized high schools, were leaving for the day.

Several students said they watched as the accused attacker, 29-year-old Sayfullo Saipov, emerged from his truck holding what were later found to be a paintball gun and a pellet gun, before being shot by a police officer.

“I saw everything,” said Hadi Moukdad, a Stuyvesant freshman.

When the gunshots rang out, Moukdad said it was unclear where they were coming from, so he fled. Other students who had also left for the day ran back to the school only to find themselves locked out. One ducked into a nearby building.

Officials considered closing Stuyvesant the day after the attack, but ultimately decided to keep it open.

“I thought it was important to send the same message that the rest of the city was sending,” de Blasio said, “that we would not be deterred by terrorism, that we would continue our work as normal.” The mayor noted that one Stuyvesant teacher injured in the attack made it to work the following day.

Still, when students arrived Wednesday, many were visibly shaken. Some teachers invited them to reflect on what had happened, while others carried on classes as normal. One group of students wore black in solidarity with those who had been killed.

“It was a really weird atmosphere — no one really knew what to say,” said Ethan Shenker, a freshman who could see the attack unfold from his classroom and later met with one of the trauma counselors the city made available. “I’ve been trying to keep it out of my head.”

As the attack unfolded, Stuyvesant teacher Annie Thomas was in the middle of a class centered on Amy Tan’s book “The Joy Luck Club,” she told the New Yorker. The discussion stretched on for three hours while students waited to be evacuated.

Later, Thomas reflected on what it means for her Muslim students in particular to live through such acts of terror.

“Especially after 9/11, every time I see that something is a terrorist incident, and someone has said ‘Allahu Akhbar,’ I feel a pit in my stomach, because terrorism is the evil opposite of what Islam is,” she told the magazine. “So many of our kids here at Stuyvesant are Muslim, and they fear being tarred with this kind of thing.”

Across Chambers Street, P.S. 89 Principal Veronica Najjar didn’t miss a beat after she received word of the attack, according to the New York Times.

Her students had just been dismissed, so the school’s staff helped pull them back into the building. Najjar, who helped guide her school through the 9/11 attacks, explained that the most important thing is for the adults to stay calm and speak to students truthfully, without divulging too many upsetting details.

“We just make sure that we’re giving kids the facts that are not overly explicit or overly graphic,” she told the Times. “When you stick to the facts with kids, without giving them any embellishment or emotion with it, they are usually very satisfied. They just want to know that you’re being truthful with them.”

During Thursday’s press conference, Fariña said the staff members at all four schools in the vicinity of the attack had responded exactly as she had hoped.

“Teachers stayed until every child was home, until every parent got listened to, until everyone was deemed safe,” she said.

Walk it out

NYC mayor encourages school walkouts in wake of Florida shooting: ‘If I was a high school student today, I’d be walking out’

PHOTO: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office
Mayor Bill de Blasio

In the wake of a school shooting in Florida that left 17 dead, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said students won’t face serious disciplinary action if they choose to participate in a national school walkout planned for next month to protest gun violence.

“If I was a high school student today, I’d be walking out,” de Blasio said Thursday. “This is too important a moment in history to try to hold back the desire of our young people to see fundamental change and to protect themselves.”

Students across the country are planning to walk out of class at 10 a.m. on March 14 “to protest Congress’ inaction to do more than tweet thoughts and prayers in response to the gun violence plaguing our schools and neighborhoods,” according to a Facebook description of the event.  The protest is scheduled to last 17 minutes, one for each person who died at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

And unlike one Texas school district, which threatened to slap students with suspensions if they walked out, de Blasio said students would not face serious discipline. “There’s no negative, lasting impact if they do this,” the mayor said.

De Blasio’s tacit endorsement of the walkout comes just days after he announced that schools across the city would deploy more “rapid-response lesson plans” about current events. On Friday, de Blasio told WNYC’s Brian Lehrer that the protests are a “teachable moment.”

We are going to do lesson plans around this issue leading up to that day,” de Blasio said. “We are going to make sure that there’s a real educational impact.”

The city also announced this week that every New York City school will hold a lockdown drill by March 15, and every middle and high school will be subject to at least one random screening with metal detectors this year.

Here’s more on what de Blasio told Lehrer this morning:

For high school students – we are going to be very clear, we want parents to weigh in, to let us know if they are comfortable with a young person walking out. It is supposed to be for 17 minutes. We expect the school day before and after to proceed. For younger folks – middle school, elementary school — the model I’m interested in, we are still working on this, is to have it be within the context of the building, you know to gather in the building for the memorial to the 17 young people lost, 17 people lost I should say. And again that may be silent, that may be with young people speaking, that’s all being worked through.

Speaking Out

Students at Denver’s George Washington High say their voices were unheard in principal selection

PHOTO: Denver Post file

When Shahad Mohieldin learned that students, parents, and teachers at George Washington High School in Denver would have a say in who was named the next principal, the high school senior spent days recruiting representatives from all three groups to participate.

Mohieldin, a member of the school’s advisory board, said she and others worked hard to ensure the group vetting the principal candidates would be diverse. It was important to include students of color and white students, parents who speak English and those who don’t, and teachers of both International Baccalaureate and traditional classes, she said, especially since the high school has been working to heal years-long racial and academic divides.

The students particularly liked one candidate who they said seemed to understand the school’s struggles. He would have also been a leader of color at a school where 70 percent are students of color. Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg ultimately chose a different candidate, a more experienced principal with whom he’d worked closely before.

It was a whirlwind process that took just seven weeks from when the current principal announced his retirement. In the end, Mohieldin and other students said they were left feeling like their voices were ignored.

“We were often told that, ‘Hey, your voice really matters in this. Please, we want your input,’” Mohieldin said. “It really hurts. Now we don’t trust the district as much, which is really sad.”

District leaders said the process was quick but thorough. Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova said that while it was clear the students preferred one candidate, the input collected from parents, teachers, and community members was more mixed. The slate of three finalists was unusually strong, she said, and it was not an easy decision.

Kristin Waters, the candidate who was hired, is a former district administrator with years of experience leading a comprehensive Denver high school similar in size to George Washington. The students’ top choice was an assistant principal at East High School named Jason Maclin.

Cordova said she wants to assure students that although district leaders didn’t choose students’ favored candidate, they did consider their opinions.

“It is important to use your voice,” Cordova said. “Sometimes your voice isn’t the only piece of information we look at, but in no way does that mean to stop speaking out.”

Not listening to community feedback is a perennial criticism of Denver Public Schools, and one district leaders are continually trying to address. Recently, several major decisions have been based on recommendations from committees of parents and community members. While the process hasn’t always gone smoothly, the district has followed the community’s advice.

In the case of the George Washington principal selection, the process worked like this: Current principal Scott Lessard announced in mid-December that he’d be retiring at the end of the school year. Lessard has helmed the school for two years, and students and teachers credit him with fostering a sense of unity and a culture of openness to new ideas.

But he said the daily challenges of being a school principal led to his decision.

“I was going to retire at some point,” he said. “It may not have been at the end of this year, but it was going to be soon. The school in such a good place, I thought it was a unique opportunity now to find somebody who would be a good principal.”

The district has a pool of pre-screened principal candidates who are invited to apply for openings as they come up, Cordova said. With every vacancy, the district convenes a committee of parents, teachers, and community members to interview the candidates. In the case of high school principal jobs, the district also asks students to participate.

For George Washington, the district assembled the committee and three separate focus groups, which Mohieldin helped organize: one of parents, one of teachers, and one of students. The groups and the committee interviewed five candidates selected by the district, and based partly on their feedback, district leaders whittled the field to three finalists, Cordova said.

The three finalists then participated in a community forum. Forum attendees were asked to submit written comments on candidates’ strengths and weaknesses, and Cordova said she personally read every single one. She said district leaders also read emails students sent afterward urging the district to pick Maclin. Students said they never received responses to those emails – one reason they felt unheard.

A week after the forum, on Feb. 6, the district announced its decision to hire Waters.

Cordova said she has every confidence that Waters will be “an amazing school leader.” Waters has been principal of three Denver schools: Morey Middle School; Bruce Randolph School, which serves grades six through 12; and South High School, whose demographics are similar to George Washington. More than 300 of the 1,239 students at George Washington are black and more than 400 are Hispanic.

“She has a strong track record working in similar communities,” Cordova said.

Students had some concerns about Waters’ approachability and her seemingly close ties with district leadership; Boasberg was listed as the first reference on her resumé. They said they liked Maclin’s presence, and that he seemed knowledgeable about the school’s past struggles and had concrete ideas for its future. Maclin submitted a proposed plan for his first 100 days as principal that included conducting a listening tour of the school community.

But students said their main complaint is not the outcome but the way the process unfolded.

“The district goes through this whole act of putting on these focus groups and interviews at the school and it’s like, ‘What really came out of that?’” said sophomore Andrew Schwartz. “At this point, it seems like the answer to that question is very little. I think that’s upsetting.”

Schwartz was part of the student focus group that interviewed all five candidates. So was junior Henry Waldstreicher, who noted that students missed an entire day of school to participate.

Waldstreicher said he was also left feeling disillusioned. “Why should we even try to talk to the district if they’re not going to listen to what we’re going to say?” he said.

The perception that the selection process was top-down wasn’t just among the students. Some teachers and community members said they felt the same way.

“We were given the opportunity to give our feedback and then it went into a black box and a decision was made,” said Vincent Bowen, a community member who participates in a student mentoring program at George Washington and was on the selection committee.

Pam Shamburg, executive director of the Denver teachers union, shared those concerns, adding that what happened at George Washington has happened at other schools, too: Candidates, she said, “go through this process, this rigamarole, but the district already knows who they’re going to pick.”

Parent Elizabeth Sopher said she feels district leaders weren’t as transparent as they could have been about what they wanted in a new principal, which she suspects contributed to the disconnect between the students’ top pick and the district’s ultimate decision.

“When you say to a group, ‘You tell us what the most important thing about this new principal is to you,’” she said, but then don’t make a decision based on that, “that’s a mistake.”

For her part, Waters said she’s excited to step into her new role at George Washington. She’s slated to start March 1 and finish out the school year alongside Lessard, a transition plan Cordova said was important to the district and the school community.

Waters said she wants to build a strong relationship with students. To that end, she has already met with a group of them to talk about their concerns.

“Once I get on board, they will see me out and about and hopefully feel comfortable coming up to me and letting me know what they’re thinking,” Waters said. “I want their input.”

Junior Cora Galpern said rebuilding that trust will be crucial. In the future, Galpern said the district should give students and others more of a say in principal selection by seeking a consensus on a candidate rather than simply soliciting feedback.

“Because at the end of the day,” she said, “our next principal has a huge effect on our day-to-day lives.”