Published Online: October 1, 2003
Published in Print: October 1, 2003, as State Journal

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Fire Alarms

Fire officials in Massachusetts ignited a slow burn when they instructed some educators early this past summer to take down student artwork and other flammable materials posted in schools.

The materials, when in excess, are considered fire hazards under revamped codes articulated over the summer, said Bay State officials. ("New Fire Code in Mass. Targets Classroom Displays," July 9, 2003.)

Educators, though, argued that such displays are valuable learning tools, and they raised enough objections to the rules that state fire officials announced a compromise last week.

Under the revamped regulations, student artwork and other paper products can cover 50 percent of classroom wall space in buildings with sprinklers, said Stephen D. Coan, the state fire marshal. That is up from the 30 percent coverage announced over the summer. Common areas with sprinklers, such as gymnasiums, cafeterias, and hallways, can also be covered up to 50 percent.

In buildings without fire-safety features, only 20 percent of classroom space and 10 percent of public spaces such as hallways can be covered with paper displays, Mr. Coan said.

Before this summer, the code required walls for all schools to remain bare, but the rule was neither noted nor enforced, Mr. Coan said.

Such restrictions on schools are not uncommon.

In Madison, Wis., such materials are limited to 20 percent of all school walls under new local rules also announced this summer, regardless of sprinklers, said Edwin J. Ruckriegel, the city's fire marshal.

There were no restrictions under the old code.

And, as in Massachusetts, educators in Madison weren't happy.

"Teachers really reacted strongly" to the change, said Ken Syke, a spokesman for the 24,900-student school district. "At first, it sounded pretty restrictive. They worried they would have to make major changes to their rooms."

That may be true, Massachusetts' Mr. Coan said, but the dangers of combustible materials are a much bigger problem. More than 200 fires were ignited in the state's schools in 2000 causing $1.2 million in property damage, he added. Still, Massachusetts educators have warmed to the modified school display standards.

"Clearly, it's a very good thing this happened for schools," Jonathan Palumbo, a spokesman for the 62,800-student Boston school system, told The Boston Globe in a Sept. 19 article. "Teachers and principals were really struggling with how to keep morale up and have nothing hanging on the walls."

—Julie Blair

Vol. 23, Issue 5, Page 16

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