School Climate & Safety

On Disaster’s Doorstep, Schools Strain to Cope

By Jessica L. Sandham — September 19, 2001 7 min read
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For the students and staff members at Norman Thomas High School in Midtown Manhattan, the morning of Sept. 13 brought with it a return to school—if not a return to normalcy.

Students milled around outside the building next to an American flag flying at half-staff, some talking to friends in somber tones, others staring blankly ahead as the near-constant screech of sirens punctuated the sounds of morning traffic. More than two days after the terrorist attack that shook the city to its core and destroyed the twin towers that were its tallest skyscrapers, some students said that although they were physically back at school, their minds were elsewhere.

“I’m a little shaky about being here right now,” said Millie Melendez, a 17-year-old senior at the 2,000-student school, which is located just three blocks from the Empire State Building. “We just don’t know what else they’re going to hit.”

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Teachers, students, and staff members in New York City and its surrounding communities went back to school straining to re-establish some comforting routines amid a week marked by chaos. While the schools located below 14th Street in Lower Manhattan remained closed indefinitely, staff members in other schools reported to work two hours before students last Thursday to discuss how best to assess and address the needs of students in the immediate aftermath of the violence.

“We’re going to have as close to a normal day as we can,” said Rob Leal, who teaches English at Norman Thomas. “The mood is really low. Most people don’t even want to be here.”

Suburban Schools Shaken

Teachers and administrators in bedroom communities outside the city also took steps to console shaken students and those with family members who remained unaccounted for after a pair of hijacked airliners sent the 110-story towers of the World Trade Center crashing to the ground on Sept. 11.

At a high school in Darien, Conn., where many people commute to New York City, school officials on Thursday morning grappled with the “almost certain” news that a parent of one 11th grader at the school perished in the disaster, said Lawrence Mayer, the principal of the 880-student Darien High School.

“Our school psychologists met with the friends of this student,” Mr. Mayer said. “They wanted to know, ‘What do we say? How do we act?’”

Likewise, at the 540-student Delbarton School, an all-boys Roman Catholic school in Morristown, N.J., staff members were working to help students cope with multiple losses in the school community: a missing father of two students in the school, a missing graduate of the school, and a graduate’s father who was known to be dead.

“We’re still dealing with some rumors and some facts, and just praying for everyone involved,” said the Rev. Luke Travers, the school’s headmaster, noting that 14 parents of students in the school had worked in the World Trade Center complex.

The school maintained a normal schedule after the tragedy, Father Travers said, and school officials and students have offered support to the two students whose father remained missing as of late last week.

“I told them they can write their own rules now,” Father Travers said. “If they want to just come to lunch, they can come to lunch, and we won’t expect them to stay for class.”

At the 5,200-student school district in Ridgewood, N.J., meanwhile, volunteers worked last Thursday morning to send parents fliers that detailed the various counseling and other services set up to help students cope. In a district where approximately 1,800 parents work in Manhattan and eight parents remained missing, schools maintained normal schedules as a way to give students a welcome structure, said Frederick J. Stokley, the district’s superintendent.

“Traumatic events dissolve our assumption about the world being a safe place,” Mr. Stokley wrote in the flier sent home to parents. “Anything adults can do to provide an environment where children can continue to be children is helpful.”

Getting Out

While they could hardly provide a safe environment in Lower Manhattan on the morning of Sept. 11, staff members at Public School 150 did their best to protect the innocence of the children in their care. As they evacuated the school and led the students to a safer location further uptown, school employees strived to keep the children’s eyes averted as one of the towers of the World Trade Center collapsed behind them as quickly as a pile of toy blocks.

“We just knew we had to keep them facing forward,” recalled school secretary Christine Walford, just hours after the attack that forced the evacuation of PS 150 and six other New York City schools located near the World Trade Center. “We didn’t want them to look behind and see the building falling,” she explained, her eyes filling with tears.

With bus transportation unavailable, staff members from the three elementary schools that were evacuated in Lower Manhattan on Sept. 11 walked students to safety at PS 41 and PS 3, two schools in the Greenwich Village area about 11/2 miles from the World Trade Center. Parents reported to the schools throughout the morning and afternoon to sign their children out.

Students at Murry Bergtraum High School and Stuyvesant High School, both a few blocks from the trade center, were evacuated by police on the morning of the disaster and told to go home. At the High School of Economics and Finance and the nearby High School of Leadership and Public Services, students were evacuated to Battery Park, where the Staten Island Ferry took them across the Hudson River to Curtis High School on Staten Island.

A majority of the students were bused home later that evening, although approximately 90 students who live in Manhattan spent the night on cots in the school because they weren’t able to return to their homes, said Catie Marshall, a spokeswoman for the New York City schools chancellor, Harold O. Levy.

Parents arriving at PS 41 to pick up their children or reunite with family members on the afternoon of the attack wondered how they could help their children make sense of something so unspeakably awful, something that made no sense to them.

As Mary Citarella ushered her 10-year-old twins, Marco and Martina DaSilva, out of the school that day, Martina tugged on her mother’s arm and said, “Mom, Mom, can you tell me what happened?”

“No one knows exactly what happened,” her mother answered calmly. Martina then excitedly responded, “Does this mean we can walk in the street?” as she noted the people crowded on a nearby street corner and the absence of traffic in the eerily quiet streets.

“I have no idea what to say to them,” Ms. Citarella acknowledged to a reporter. “I have no idea.”

Beth Lieberman brought her three children, ages 5, 8, and 11, to PS 41 in the hours after the catastrophe to meet up with her husband, Paul. That morning, Ms. Lieberman had just dropped her two youngest children at PS 234 when she saw a tower of the nearby World Trade Center erupt in flames after the first jet crashed into it.

She turned around immediately and retrieved her two children from the school before making her way over to nearby Public School/Intermediate School 89, where she picked up her older son and two of his friends. Both schools were later evacuated because of their proximity to the disaster.

“I just knew that they were with me,” Ms. Lieberman said outside PS 41, which is just down the block from St. Vincent’s Hospital, where throngs of people were lining up to donate blood soon after the attack. “You have your kids; you do not panic. I just had to get them and then think about the next second, because I just didn’t know what was going to happen next.”

‘Everyone Pulled Together’

John Miller also went straight to his daughter’s 4th grade classroom at PS 3 after he saw the first explosion on his way to work. He stayed by her side all day as her school served as a haven for students from the evacuated elementary schools.

When he found his 9-year-old daughter, Sarah, she was drawing a picture of the World Trade Center. Her classroom is on an upper floor of PS 3, where students have a view facing south. The 4th graders had watched as the soaring office towers were hit by the planes and later collapsed.

“Somebody heard a boom, and we went to the window and saw one of the planes crashing,” Sarah recalled on the afternoon of Sept 11. “I thought it was just a plane that crashed by accident, and I felt sad for the people who died inside the building.”

Linda Willis, a volunteer at the school, went with other volunteers to pick up peanut butter and bread from nearby grocery stores so that the school would be able to provide lunches for the students evacuated from other schools. By midmorning, she said, the street outside the school was filled with people streaming out of Lower Manhattan, many of them crying and in shock.

“It was actually a lot better in the school than it was on the street,” Ms. Willis said. “Here, there were a lot of very upset parents. But everyone knows each other. Everyone pulled together.”

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