On Tuesday, June 22, 2010, a parent's worst nightmare occurred. Nicole Suriel of the Columbia Secondary School drowned off the beach of Long Beach, Long Island, while caught up in a riptide. What makes this so ultimately tragic is that Nicole was on a field trip, sponsored by the school, which was approved by the principal, Jose Maldonado.
As a father to a 9-year-old boy I can't fathom for one iota of a second what the Suriel family is going through. I hope and pray I never have to. My heart goes out to the family.
Today, the New York Daily News reported that the Nassau County District Attorney's office will not be filing criminal charges against the teacher involved, her boyfriend, nor Jose Maldonado or AP, Andrew Stillman. Though disappointed, I am not surprised. I do understand the basis of proving criminal intent, and/or criminal negligence. What I do have a problem with is how, in my opinion, the New York City Department of Education has not truly held the two administrators responsible for their lack of supervision. They both got off with a slap on the wrist.
Back in June, I, and two other teachers, took 22 students to midtown Manhattan on a subway. We had to send out permission slips, both in English and Spanish, needed a minimum of two adults, and most importantly, had to have our plan approved by our principal.
In Nicole's case, specific permission slips were never used for this trip. General, generic permission slips which were signed at the beginning of the year were used. For a trip such as this, where there is a danger, and students will be or might be in water, trip specific permission slips should have been sent out, in both English and Spanish. AP Stillman decided at the last minute not to accompany the students and the teacher on the trip. This left the students under supervised, and the trip should have been postponed. Of course the teacher never should have allowed the students into the Atlantic Ocean, and should have been aware of the signage, which stated the beach was closed and no lifeguard was on duty. But she has been made the scapegoat in all this.
Like a captain of a ship, the principal of the school is ultimately responsible for everything. Jose Maldonado, dropped the ball. Did he ever check the plan for this trip? Did he ever inquire if the teacher, or if AP Stillman could swim? Or even if the students going on the trip could swim. Why did he sign off on this? For this lack of impropriety he was denied tenure (I thought NYC principals don't receive tenure) and continued on probation for two more years! Double secret probation. Where is Dean Wormer when you need him?
As far as AP Stillman, he got demoted from AP to teacher, and the subsequent dock in pay I am sure. But both these men have their jobs. The teacher, she was expendable. She was probationary, and did not have any tenure protection. She was made the fall girl.
But what if the teacher was tenured? What would have happened? Chances are she would have been reassigned to the notorious purgatory of a Teacher Reassignment Center aka "The Rubber Room" There she would have awaited her investigation, her charges, her hearing. The curious question is why Principal Maldanado and AP Stillman have not received the same fate. Simple. They are administrators, and in the eyes of Joel Klein and the NYC Department of Education, administrators can do no wrong. It is always the bad teacher, the out of control teacher, the teacher's fault. It is now open season on teachers, but no one wants to lift up the rock and see the incompetent, uncaring, principal or assistant principal lurking beneath.
This is so wrong in so many ways. Yes, the teacher bears responsibility, but so too do Maldanado and Stillman. The Suriel family will hopefully find closure and meaning one day. Nicole's death should be a reminder that we need to be vigilant in student's safety.