U.S. Department of Justice Finds New Rochelle Violated Civil Rights of Wheelchair-Bound Students in NRHS Fire Incident, Recommends Compensatory Damages to Families

Written By: Robert Cox

NEW YORK, NY — Preet Bharara, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, and Rebecca Martin, Assistant United States Attorney announced that the City School District of New Rochelle violated Title II of the ADA through its failure to evacuate two students from New Rochelle High School on January 31, 2013, its failure to establish an evacuation plan prior to January 31, 2013 and its failure to permit students who use wheelchairs for mobility to participate in evacuation drills in an equal way in accordance with the statute.

The Department of Justice has directed the District to remedy the violations by establishing an Accessibility Plan for Students with Disabilities at New Rochelle High School that, among other things, provides for accommodating requests from students with disabilities to be assigned to classrooms from which there is an accessible means of egress, and ensures that appropriate evacuation procedures are in place for the safety of all students with disabilities.

The Department of Justice has directed the District to pay compensatory damages to each of the students who were not evacuated on January 31, 2013.

This is apart from any private suit the may be filed by the students.

The DOJ Findings represent a devastating indictment of the District’s safety policies, security staff training and support and services for students with disabilities.

Joseph Starvaggi, Vice Principal for New Rochelle High School, and Yvette Goorevitch, Director of Special Education and Bruce Daniele, Director of Security are cited by name in the Findings.

The Findings conclude that the District did not have a written safety plan or evacuation
plan for students with mobility impairments, did not evacuate students with mobility impairments during drills as required. Security guards received minimal training on the operation of special evacuation equipment.

In fall 2011 parents of the two students not evacuated during the January 31st fire, met with Starvaggi and Goorevitch.

At this meeting, the parents raised concerns about their children’s classes being held on inaccessible floors and whether the students could be evacuated from those floors in an emergency.

The school administration refused to move classes to lower floors. One student, identified as AB but known through media accounts as Jennifer Feltenstein, expressed concerns that she might not be able to get out of the building if there was a fire.

According to Vice Principal Starvaggi, Director of Special Education for the District Yvette Goorevitch stated that moving AB’s classes would be “playing into [Jennifer’s] anxieties.”

All of the failures represent violations of the NY Project SAVE Law and violations of the students civil rights.

The DOJ Findings confirm previous Talk of the Sound reporting that school officials lied about receiving permission to leave Feltenstein in the high school during the January 31st fire and lied about remaining in communication with Fire Department officials.

The Fire Department officers responding to the scene have stated that they were
never notified of the presence of disabled students in the building and that they
never gave instructions for these individuals to remain inside the buildings.

The reports indicates numerous false, misleading or contradictory statements made by school officials during the investigation. Talk of the Sound is aware that other false statements were made to New York State Education Department officials.

The case is being handled by the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice.

Attorneys for the City School District of New Rochelle and the parents of the students were notified of the findings in a letter dated August 5, 2013.

The Findings document is 8 pages long and begins with a cover letter:

As you are aware, the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York initiated an investigation into an evacuation of the New Rochelle High School (“NRHS”) that occurred on January 31, 2013, in connection with a carbon monoxide condition. Two students with multiple disabilities, including mobility disabilities that require them to use wheelchairs, were not evacuated along with the student body, but were left inside the school along with other personnel. Accordingly, the investigation was conducted in order to determine whether the school is in compliance with the statutory and regulatory provisions of Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (“ADA”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 12131-12134, and its implementing regulation, 28 C.F.R. Part 35. J

This Office has conducted an onsite inspection of the school and reviewed documents provided by the City School District ofNew Rochelle and the New Rochelle Fire Department. This Office has also conducted a series of interviews with one of the students who was not evacuated, at least one of the parents of each students who was not evacuated, several New Rochelle High School employees who were involved with the January 31st evacuation, and certain members of the New Rochelle Fire Department.

The families of the two students left behind during the fire directed all inquiries to their attorney, Richard St. Paul who stated he did not wish to comment at this time.

Statement from New Rochelle Board of Education:

On February 6, 2013, the City School District of New Rochelle received notification that the United States Department of Justice (“DOJ”) was conducting an investigation into the District’s compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) as it pertained to the evacuation of mobility impaired students in general and specifically regarding the events surrounding the January 31, 2013 evacuation of New Rochelle High School. The School District fully cooperated with the investigation.

On August 5, the DOJ issued its Findings. The School District is currently reviewing those Findings and intends to make a response as invited by the DOJ. The School District feels that the response is important to correct some apparent misapprehensions of fact on the part of the DOJ; to add additional information which was not included in the DOJ report that the School District believes should have been considered; and to document the Schools District’s actions to improve its safety planning since the January 31, 2013 evacuation.

Given the detailed nature of the Findings of Fact in this case, Talk of the Sound will present more detailed information in a multi-part series.