New Rochelle Fire Chief Denies Claims by School Officials Following Incident at High School

Written By: Robert Cox

NEW ROCHELLE, NY — The New Rochelle Fire Department did not consult with school officials on designated “holding rooms” at New Rochelle High School according the department’s most senior official, contradicting claims by the school district after an incident last week in which Jennifer Feltenstein, 17, a student with Cerebral Palsy, was not evacuated along with other students. Feltenstein is confined to a wheel chair.

The New Rochelle Board of Education has been widely criticized recently for its failure to comply with New York State school safety laws which require annually updated and reviewed district-wide and building-level safety plans. In the wake of the Newtown tragedy, school officials were forced to backtrack on initial claims the district was in full compliance with New York’s Project SAVE Law. The district-wide plan has not been updated since 2009. Building-level plans have not been updated since 2001 when they were first drafted in the wake of the Columbine shooting.

New York State Education Department police for Emergency Evacuation of Non-ambulatory Disabled Individuals requires full evacuation during an actual emergency which was the case last week.

At least once during each school year, emergency response/fire service personnel should participate in a drill that involves responding to the needs of disabled persons in safe areas.

During all emergency/fire drills, non-ambulatory disabled individuals should be full participants. All actions necessary to move disabled individuals to safe areas should be practiced as part of each drill. It is understood that full evacuation of these individuals is required during an actual emergency. School administrators must discuss evacuation procedures with non-ambulatory disabled individuals and their parent(s) or legal guardian(s) in order to determine the level of participation required during “drills.

Last Thursday, New Rochelle High School was evacuated after firefighters responded to a report of smoke coming from burning wires. Using specialized equipment, firefighters got readings of high carbon monoxide levels at the school. Carbon monoxide is odorless and colorless and takes the place of oxygen in a person’s body. Lack of oxygen leads to coma and finally ends in death. The district has not commented on whether there are carbon monoxide detectors in that area or whether they malfunctioned.

In a statement released last week by the New Rochelle Board of Education, attributed to Special Education Director Yvette Goorevitch, the district claimed “our Schools are required to develop individual safety plans developed for each student requiring specialized evacuation. Holding rooms are identified and marked in consultation with the Fire Department.”

In an exclusive interview with Talk of the Sound, New Rochelle Fire Chief Lou DiMeglio took issue with that statement.

“To my knowledge, there are no holding rooms at the high school marked in consultation with us,” said DiMeglio.

DiMeglio also disputed a report that fire officials had played a role in moving the student to a holding room.

The Journal News, reported last week that district spokesperson Paul Costiglio said Friday that fire officials had told Assistant Principal Joseph Starvaggi it would be “safe to keep Jennifer Feltenstein in a holding room far from the smoke Thursday morning.”

The Journal News also reported that Feltenstein’s father stated his daughter was not placed in a holding room.

DiMeglio spoke with Deputy Fire Chief Robert Benz, the Incident Commander, who reported to DiMeglio that he had not been made aware of the situation with Feltenstein.

“Our guys were not notified of a special needs student in the building,” said DiMeglio. “We did not direct anyone to keep a student at the high school in a holding room.”

DiMeglio stated that several years ago, before he became Fire Chief, a former Code Enforcement Officer from the New Rochelle Fire Department had previously worked out a plan with New Rochelle Schools Security Director Bruce Daniele allowing for a special needs student to be held in a safe area.

“The designated safe area would depend on where in the school the student was,” said DiMeglio. “A security person would be present with a radio and they would notify our Incident Commander as to the location of that person in an emergency.”

DiMeglio says that did not occur in this instance.