Tuesday, July 17, 2007

On a Serious Note: A GBN News Cautionary Tale

(Ed. Note): Recent news reports of an al-Qaeda resurgence are a chilling reminder of the realities we face as parents in New York City. We are reminded of how powerless we feel against forces that we cannot control, and of the difficulties we face in protecting our children. How ironic, then, that some of the forces we cannot control turn out to be our own Mayor and schools Chancellor, whose school cell phone ban not only rejects the wishes of the vast majority of parents and educators, but puts our children’s safety at risk in this age of terrorism. GBN usually tries to do humorous news parodies, but the following look ahead is deadly serious, and unfortunately all too plausible. Our apologies for the graphic and disturbing nature of this piece. But if only the Mayor and Chancellor, or someone close to them, would read this, maybe seeing these possibilities laid out in black and white would shake them up just a bit. Maybe they would even consider changing this ill-advised and dangerous policy. But then again, why should they? It’s not their children who are at risk.

A winter day, early 2008 (GBN News): Three days after the worst terror attack since 9/11, this time in the dead of winter, there is increasing concern about the fate of a number of missing New York City public school students. Despite the near total shutdown of the city’s transportation system in the first two days after the attack, most people seem to have been able to find their way back to their homes or to other shelters. Many made use of their cell phones to help direct them away from danger, coordinate assistance, and to reassure loved ones of their safety. However, some city students, denied the right to possess cell phones by a strict Department of Education policy, have not been heard from since the blast.

Several distraught parents, unable to get any information from the police, have contacted news organizations. One high school parent, whose daughter travels to school by subway between Manhattan and the Bronx, said that her daughter’s cell phone had been confiscated the day before the attack in a random scan. The parents had considered keeping her home from school until they were sure the metal detectors were gone, but were afraid that she would miss important test preparation with the high stakes tests coming up. The parent said that her daughter, a ninth grader, is unfamiliar with the city streets and, without transit running and with no way to call her parents, probably got lost wandering around in the sub freezing temperatures.

The parent of an eighth grader said that his daughter had actually managed to reach an out of town “contact person” after waiting two hours for one of the few working pay phones, but was unable to leave a call back number since the pay phone was constantly busy. The contact person was finally able to relay the girl’s location to the parents, but when they finally got to the pay phone location hours later, the daughter was gone, and has not been heard from since.

A few of the missing students were from a Manhattan high school a short distance from the terrorist blast. This school was one of those designated for experimental “outside lockers” where children could lock their phones up before coming into school. However, the school grounds were evacuated in such haste, and the smoke was so thick, that students did not have time to retrieve their phones as they fled in all directions. A parent of one of those children said that he was afraid his son might have wandered further into the danger zone. Had his son been able to call, the father said, he could perhaps have directed him safely out of the area.

One child who did eventually make it home told a horrifying story. She had been taken in by ostensibly “Good Samaritans” who offered her a refuge from the cold weather, but they proceeded to steal her money and threatened her life if she told anyone. The child then wandered the streets in a daze until she happened upon a police officer.

The police confirmed that they are getting a number of missing children reports, but they have been too overwhelmed with securing the city to appropriately follow up. A senior Police Department official, in apparent contradiction to the Mayor’s policy, acknowledged that had the city’s schoolchildren been able to carry cell phones, many more would have gotten safely home, and much anguish would have been avoided. Moreover, he said the 911 system, already overloaded in the hours after the attack, was further burdened by parents attempting to find their children. In retrospect, he admitted that children, as our most vulnerable citizens, should have had at least the same essential safety tools as adults.

Besides the missing, there have been a number of other serious situations involving school children. One Brooklyn High school had a near riot and school security agents were overwhelmed when hundreds of students fought over the school’s only two pay phones. And some parents whose children finally did make it home reported that their children were traumatized and frost bitten, and some are afraid to go back to school on their own. Others heard from hospitals that their children were being treated for exposure, having spent hours outside trying to find their way home, many walking miles in the cold.

Mayor Bloomberg, at a City Hall news conference, dismissed the parents’ concerns and insisted that the missing children “probably just stopped off for pizza somewhere”. The Mayor added, “We’re not changing our cell phone policy, schools are for learning, thank you very much, next question.”


DTGBKLYN said...

Oh My God1!!
Gary, this has been my worst nightmare put into words, and my son lives only about a mile from school. If only they could understand the fears of parents.

Great work.

Dorothy Reg 6 HS

Seth Pearce said...

Truly a horrifying and devastatingly believable story. It could happen. As a NYC Public Schools student this is one of my biggest fears. I believe with the cell phone ban and the climate of terrorism as it is, it is important to learn from other school systems that have to deal with similar situations.

Although I am an NYC Public School kid through and through, I did attend Israeli public school in Jerusalem while I was in elementary school. At the school everyone had a cellphone. Not only the teachers and administration, but each student, no matter whether they were in High School or Kindergarten. In Jerusalem the transportation situation is similar to in the city in that many students use public buses to get to school. Even though there was a fear of terror attacks, parents fears were assuaged by the knowledge that their children had cell phones.

In an emergency, a cell phone can be the difference. It can save you. Thank you for writing this story. It is very important.