Schools grieve for dead firemen

21st September 2001 at 01:00
In the United States schools struggle to cope with losses among staff, pupils and parents after terrorist attacks last week

Perhaps no school district in New York City has been more badly battered by the attacks on the World Trade Center than district 20 in Brooklyn.

The middle-income area is home to a large number of firefighters and policemen and many of them were taking part in the rescue operation when the towers collapsed. According to school district officials, the fathers of 12 students at one school alone are missing, and believed dead.

"One father of 10 children is gone. A teacher lost a son. People are just holding on with hope," said Vincent Grippo, the district's superintendent.

The district has more than 29,000 students attending 30 elementary, junior high or high schools. District children have been encouraged to write letters of condolence to the families of firefighters, policemen and other rescue workers. "We are trying to make them part of the cure," said the superintendent.

"Even out of the most horrific event some good can come."

District 20 also accommodates some of New York's most ethnically-diverse neighbourhoods. Its children speak 64 languages - from Russian to Arabic. The area has the largest number of Jews outside Israel and, it is claimed, one of the largest Arab populations outside the Middle East.

With such diversity, the district has been extra careful in discussing what happened at the World Trade Center and who is responsible.

Kathie LeDonni is the principal at Public School 247, an elementary school in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. Ten per cent of its students are from Syria, Jordan and Palestine.

"So many had heard about suicide missions and many knew people or had relatives working in the buildings. From some of the classrooms you could see smoke billowing from the twin towers," Ms LeDonni said. Racial incidents had occurred in the neighbourhood around her school, but so far the children had not joined the adults taunting and baiting Arab-Americans, she said. "One young Arab boy came into school with a US flag on his chest."

The tragic events at the World Trade Center have been difficult for teachers as well. With the children away from school the day after the attacks, District 20 sent teachers to crisis-intervention seminars with a battery of grief counsellors and psychologists. Teachers talked, cried and, when that was done, got back to work, said Debbie Nevins, a reading teacher at Public School 247 in Bensonhurst.

"It is very difficult to be a teacher in the middle of such a thing," she said. "But we have to carry on. There's no time to dwell on things when a classful of children needs you."

While most Manhattan schools reopened on Monday, 24 elementary, junior high and high schools closest to the danger zone will remain closed indefinitely. It is feared that they may be structurally unsound. Fifteen thousand displaced students are being sent to schools across the city.

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