THE BLOG
07/30/2010 04:07 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Why Did Nicole Suriel Die?

For a long time I debated whether to write this post. Nicole Suriel was a twelve-year old student at the Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science and Engineering who drowned on a school-sponsored trip to a beach in Long Beach, New York. Her family certainly suffered enough anguish without me adding my comments. I could not figure out a way to comfort traumatized teachers or students. As much as we want to prevent them, tragic accidents happen. In 1984, I was a teacher at Franklin K. Lane High School when five students died in a fire at Six Flags Great Adventure, a New Jersey amusement park, while on a school trip.

On June 21, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who because of mayoral control over the school system is ultimately responsible for everything that happens there, said to the public and media:

Let's not go and rush and assign blame. I think at this point what we have to focus on is maybe grieving and having a prayer for the child and see if we can help the parents through what is obviously the most difficult situation any parent could possibly experience. We'll focus on that right now.

It was a rare instance where I agreed with the mayor.

But our agreement was only temporary. While Bloomberg was asking us not to "rush and assign blame," the Department of Education's Office of the Special Commissioner of Investigation (SCI) was secretly preparing a report that would do just that. On the morning of June 23, 2010, two days after the mayor's announcement, the SCI dispatched teams of investigators to Long Beach and the Columbia Secondary School. Based on this "investigation," the SCI concluded that the first-year teacher who led the trip was primarily responsible for the death of Nicole Suriel, although her immediate supervisors shared some of the blame. But the school system, the school chancellor, and the mayor, had no responsibility. The next day, the teacher, Erin Bailey, was fired. The assistant principal, Andrew Stillman, was reassigned, and the school principal, Jose Maldonado, was placed on probation. In a form of techno-dismissal, Bailey and Stillman's names and biographies were dropped from the school's website. But Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein will not be able to make this incident disappear.

The report of the Department of Education's Office of the Special Commissioner of Investigation is a whitewash. It blames the young teacher, not the system or the dismal duo, Mayor Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Klein, who created it during the last ten years. That is why I decided to write this post.

During Bloomberg and Klein's tenure, the Department of Education (DOE) has dozens of designer mini-schools like the Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science and Engineering by bypassing longstanding procedures for the hiring of competent teachers and school administrators. Bloomberg and Klein's DOE brought in "interesting" but essentially clueless young people and put them in charge of children, because they thought middle-class parents would be attracted by their unusual biographies and because, not knowing any better, these teachers and administrators would work extra hours without pay and not complain to the union. It hired people who were ignorant about the lives of the children, cut corners, ran trips without parental permission, and ignored fundamental safety concerns. Apparently, they were not aware that large numbers of inner city kids do not know how to swim or understand how dangerous ocean currents can be.

The Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science and Engineering, like many similar Bloomberg/Klein mini-schools and charters that pepper the city, is a publicly funded school that operates like a private school and was designed to serve more affluent and in-the-know families. It claims to be "a selective, public, college preparatory school with a focus on science, math, and engineering" that "prepares its students for selective colleges" and for "a life of creation and discovery in service of humanity." To make all of this possible, the school has to raise tens of thousands of extra dollars.

It sounds like a wonderful place, except it is not really open to everyone. Applicants are interviewed and families are pressured to voluntarily contribute $500 a year to the school. If you can't pay it, or simply don't want to, the Columbia Secondary School is not the place for you or your children. The student population is 69 percent black and Hispanic and 30 percent white and Asian. It attracts the more middle-class black and Hispanic families in Manhattan and white and Asian students who fail to get into the city's top-tier test schools. Its thirty percent white and Asian populations is more than double the white and Asian public school student population of the city.

Sarah Garland, another Huffington Post correspondent, who also was a reporter for the New York Sun, met the school principal at an open house. She described Columbia Secondary as "not a charter, but in many ways, it has behaved like one." She also reported that teacher turnover was a problem, which is one reason a first-year teacher, her boyfriend who was a substitute teacher, and a 19-year old college student interning at the school were placed in charge of the trip. According to Garland, teachers complained "that they were driven to work 12-hour days, plus weekends" and that "there never seemed to be enough people to do everything Maldonado wanted to do to enrich the educational experience there, like take students on field trips and expand sports offerings." The SCI report noted that Nicole Suriel's class had already been on "about six outings during the month of June, including a day trip to the Croton Dam and an overnight trip from June 15 through 20, 2010, to Black Rock Forest in Cornwall, New York." Erin Bailey's boyfriend, Joseph Garnevicus was a frequent volunteer at the Columbia Secondary School and was a chaperon on the fatal beach trip and the overnight trip to Black Rock Forest. Why this was allowed is impossible to say.

Recently, more media attention has been paid to what actually goes on at the Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science and Engineering. A New York Times article on July 15, 2010, reported discontent and anger among current and former teachers. Chris Jones, a social studies teacher, told a reporter, "I think the teacher was a scapegoat in order to keep the administration's jobs intact." According to Jones, "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."

Other current and former teachers said they were under "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." A former English teacher 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." She told the Times, "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."

Chance Nalley, a math teacher and the union chapter chair at the school told the Times that the teachers "are outraged that we had been so patient and long-suffering, and we're mad that we didn't deal with things sooner." Several teachers said that while the principal had "incredible vision," he lacked the skilled needed to be an effective administrator. Mr. Maldonado said in an e-mail message to the Times reporter that he could not comment.

The death of Nicole Suriel was a tragedy and an accident. But it was a tragedy and an accident made more likely because the leadership of the school system does not respect teacher knowledge and experience and the importance of administrators who are educational leaders rather than middle managers. Her death was the result of systemic failure, not just poor judgment by an inexperienced young woman given responsibility she was unprepared to assume. The mayor and school chancellor who created this failed system are the ones who bear ultimate responsibility for it. As the sign on Harry Truman's desk said he was President of the United States, "The buck stops here."