COUNTY EXECUTIVE’S CORNER: Expecting School Safety

By: Rockland County Executive Ed Day

When my children were little, I would put them on the bus in the morning with every expectation that they would be safe and cared for in school.

Safe from physical hazards, safe from dangerous conditions, safe from fire, safe from anything that could hurt them.

What parent wouldn’t have the same expectation?

I find myself now spending an increasing amount of time worrying about the safety of children I fear are in harm’s way.

We have had two recent incidents in the past week that once again raise the worrisome issue of safety in some private schools.

In one case, where we had to close down a school that had no water. In another other case, fire broke out in a trailer used as a classroom that had no smoke detectors, blocked exits and other safety hazards.

These incidents also call into question the intentions of some of the adults – administrators, town, village and state officials – who are supposed to enforce rules to safeguard children.

Keep in mind that the county has no direct authority over schools, public or private. That’s a job for the state Department of Education, the school districts as well as the town or village where the school is located. Sadly, we see one town and some of its villages repeatedly falling down on the job.

Because of these failures, the county has had to step in to make sure that all children who go to school in Rockland are safe.

I have vowed to take every action available to ensure the safety of  all children in this county. We use one of the few tools we have, the Rockland County Sanitary Code.

Our Rockland County Department of Health cited the Sanitary Code last week to shut down a school that has been operating in a group of trailers on Summit Park Road.

If we hadn’t, 400 female students, some as young as five years old, could have been going to a school with no water.

Ateres Bais Yaakov Academy of Rockland opened in September in New Hempstead, a village in Ramapo. The village gets inspection services from the town, which issued a temporary certificate of occupancy even though the school was obviously nowhere near ready.

When they moved in they were getting water from a garden hose, using an unapproved, uncertified electrical system and had no workable fire hydrants. How could the Town of  Ramapo and the Village of New Hempstead condone such a situation?

Where was the East Ramapo School District, which is supposed to have oversight over private schools within the district? Even worse, a state monitor put in the Ramapo Building Department because of the town’s repeated failures to enforce the law, approved a makeshift fire hydrant that failed to work when tested by firefighters.

We’ve gone back and forth with this school as its administrators play catch-up and try to do things that obviously should have been done before the first student stepped foot on the property.

But the point is that we shouldn’t have to. If other agencies did their respective jobs, this school would not have opened until it had water, safe electricity, fire protection, etc.

We’re still trying to sort out the details of what happened at 15 Elyon Road in Kaser, another Ramapo village. Firefighters were called there early last Sunday morning when trailers used as yeshiva classrooms caught fire.

There was no fire alarm system and firefighters – volunteers who got out of bed and into the bitter cold – found blocked exits and at least one exit that was unsafe.

Thankfully, no one was hurt. The school is located on the same property as Village Hall. These are just two of the most recent cases of private schools with questionable safety issues.

The real victims of these systemic failures by the villages, towns and the state are the children and their parents who have every right to expect, as I did, that their children are safe at school.

We will do all we can with the tools available to the county. But we shouldn’t have to.

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