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School Drowning Sparks Conversation among Haitian-Americans

The Haitian Times

Last Month, the Special Commissioner of Investigation Ronald J. Condon released his findings of the drowning of 12-year-old Nicole Suriel, a sixth-grader at the Columbia Secondary School for Math and Science in the upper westside of Manhattan.
“I never let my children go on school trips said Marie Jean-Baptiste, a parent living in Brooklyn, upon hearing of the decision to fire Erin Bailey, a first-year teacher.
The report was the result of an investigation prompted by the Department Of Education, DOE, Counsel Michael Best upon the drowning of Nicole Suriel on a June 22nd school trip to Long Beach in Long Island. The 24 students and three chaperons headed to Long Beach on a class field trip as a reward for their school fundraising efforts. The report revealed there were many missteps that resulted in the deadly trip.

The report states: “Nicole Suriel’s death was a tragedy. Certainly, Columbia Secondary School personnel did not intend to cause her harm. Nevertheless, there was a lack of adequate planning by the principal and the assistant principal, a failure to provide a sufficient number of adults to supervise the children at the beach, and poor judgment by the teacher in charge who either failed to realize that there were no lifeguards on duty or failed to recognize the additional danger presented by their absence.”

In the wake of this tragedy, many Haitian parents and educators are questioning the schools and their ability to safe guard outings. “Haitian parents need to stop being so linear and focus on the broader picture,” says Lily Cerat a Haitian-American educator and writer in New York City. “The City Parks, Museums and beaches should be part of the learning experience. It is unfortunate some may use this as an excuse not to let their children participate in activities.”

Another New York City school group was also on a trip that day to Long Beach. The report states: “PS 3 had 24 adult chaperones – two veteran teachers, a student intern, an educational volunteer and 20 parents – to supervise 51 children. PS 3 also produced permission slips specific to the trip.” These actions taken on the part of PS 3 highlight the negligence on the part of Columbia Secondary.
This story created an uproar among Haitian Americans because the school of thought for many Haitian parents has been “school is for education not for fun,” says Nancie Adolphe, a City College student, mimicking her parents tone. “Haitian parents tend to be weary about letting their kids participate in school activities. When incidents like the death of Nicole occurs, one can understand.
“Many parents feel that their child is safest within the confines of the school walls and any venture beyond those walls is asking for trouble. And the June 22 outing by Columbia Secondary does not make it easier on us to convince our parents why extracurricular activities are good for the kids.”
The report not only placed blame on teacher Erin Bailey, the assistant Principal Andrew Stillman was demoted to teacher. He too was supposed to be on the trip, serving as one of 3 adult supervisors; however, he stayed behind because of administrative duties. He was replaced by 28-year-old Joseph Garnevicus, Bailey’s boyfriend who had volunteered at the school on numerous occasions. The third chaperon was 19-year-old teaching intern Victoria Wong, who was an average to above average swimmer. When six of the students got caught in a riptide, it became clear that saving them rested in the hands of Wong and Bailey as Ganevicus could not swim.
The principal of the school, Maldonado Rivera, was put on two-year probation. Even though Department of Education policies state that principals are the ones who are ultimately responsible for field trips, Mr. Maldonado-Rivera is a tenured teacher and could not be fired.
Marylin Laurent is upset by this whole case. “[Well] that school needs a lawsuit. But the parents should be careful as to the ratio of adult per child. When my kids go to day camp I make sure to ask about that. That is the perspective of many parents we speak to.”
Why the fear in kids extracurricular participation? Ms. Cerat believes as it relates to Haitians, “It definitely is cultural. Even in Haiti there’s a fear about letting kids go in water or on overnight stays. There is this fear of the unknown that really puts a hold on us. A Haitian parent will forbid their child from accepting a scholarship to a school like Stamford or Oberlin for the simple fact that it is too far.” The need to be in control of situations is very prevalent and dictates their fear and lack of desire to provide permission for trips and various other life experiences.

However, as a parent you have to let go, says Marylin.
“I am always skeptical when my kids are not with me. I don’t trust anyone but I have resolved to accept that one day they will be on their own, so I let go,” she says. The reality of letting go can be tragic as is exemplified by Nicole’s Suriel’s case. But then again, “we are preparing these kids to be citizens of tomorrow, citizens of the world; we have to expose kids to different experiences.”

Teacher Rachelle Jean-Louis and Lily Cerat both agree that the issue the fatal June 22nd outing by Columbia Secondary should not be used as an example for parents. “That incident is an example of a group of people that did not do what they were supposed to do. If they had followed the rules, a lot of things could have been prevented,” states Rachelle.

But for Marie, there is a little that will change her mind. “When my child comes home with those permission slips for schools, I always say no. I don’t want to risk something happening to him.” But as Lily states, things can happen while a child is sitting at his or her desk. It is simply a matter of educating yourself on the situation and being aware of all circumstances.

Haitian Times

Haitian Times

The Haitian Times was founded in 1999 as a weekly English language newspaper based in Brooklyn, NY.The newspaper is widely regarded as the most authoritative voice for Haitian Diaspora.
Haitian Times
May. 05, 2012

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