rapid response

Student injured in New York City terror attack returned to school the following day

PHOTO: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photo Office
Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo stand in front of the school bus mangled in Tuesday's attack.

On Tuesday, a man sped a pickup truck down bike lanes in Lower Manhattan, killing eight people and wounding over a dozen others before ramming into a yellow school bus, temporarily trapping two students inside.

On Wednesday, one of those students, a 16-year-old who had suffered minor injuries, insisted on returning to school. He wanted to keep his perfect attendance record.

But there was a problem: “The bus actually didn’t pick him up, thinking he wouldn’t be there,” said schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, who told the story Thursday at a press conference near the site of the attack. So the boy’s mother called for a car to take him from Brooklyn to his Manhattan school.

“When I spoke to him yesterday,” Fariña continued, “and this is something I’m never going to forget in terms of my experience as chancellor, he said to me: ‘I told myself I’m going to be fine because a lot of people want to help me.’ That’s what New York is all about.”

Fariña added that the other student who was on the bus had gone through surgery but was “on the mend.” Two adults on the bus, including the driver, were expected to recover.

On Thursday, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Fariña applauded the response from a handful of schools in Lower Manhattan to what has been described as the deadliest act of terror in New York City since 9/11. The schools swiftly moved into “shelter in place” mode, a protocol where classes are supposed to continue as scheduled, but staffers seal the entrances and exits.

“I think they handled a very tough situation exceptionally well,” de Blasio said.

Tuesday’s attack ended just as some students from Stuyvesant, one of the city’s elite specialized high schools, were leaving for the day.

Several students said they watched as the accused attacker, 29-year-old Sayfullo Saipov, emerged from his truck holding what were later found to be a paintball gun and a pellet gun, before being shot by a police officer.

“I saw everything,” said Hadi Moukdad, a Stuyvesant freshman.

When the gunshots rang out, Moukdad said it was unclear where they were coming from, so he fled. Other students who had also left for the day ran back to the school only to find themselves locked out. One ducked into a nearby building.

Officials considered closing Stuyvesant the day after the attack, but ultimately decided to keep it open.

“I thought it was important to send the same message that the rest of the city was sending,” de Blasio said, “that we would not be deterred by terrorism, that we would continue our work as normal.” The mayor noted that one Stuyvesant teacher injured in the attack made it to work the following day.

Still, when students arrived Wednesday, many were visibly shaken. Some teachers invited them to reflect on what had happened, while others carried on classes as normal. One group of students wore black in solidarity with those who had been killed.

“It was a really weird atmosphere — no one really knew what to say,” said Ethan Shenker, a freshman who could see the attack unfold from his classroom and later met with one of the trauma counselors the city made available. “I’ve been trying to keep it out of my head.”

As the attack unfolded, Stuyvesant teacher Annie Thomas was in the middle of a class centered on Amy Tan’s book “The Joy Luck Club,” she told the New Yorker. The discussion stretched on for three hours while students waited to be evacuated.

Later, Thomas reflected on what it means for her Muslim students in particular to live through such acts of terror.

“Especially after 9/11, every time I see that something is a terrorist incident, and someone has said ‘Allahu Akhbar,’ I feel a pit in my stomach, because terrorism is the evil opposite of what Islam is,” she told the magazine. “So many of our kids here at Stuyvesant are Muslim, and they fear being tarred with this kind of thing.”

Across Chambers Street, P.S. 89 Principal Veronica Najjar didn’t miss a beat after she received word of the attack, according to the New York Times.

Her students had just been dismissed, so the school’s staff helped pull them back into the building. Najjar, who helped guide her school through the 9/11 attacks, explained that the most important thing is for the adults to stay calm and speak to students truthfully, without divulging too many upsetting details.

“We just make sure that we’re giving kids the facts that are not overly explicit or overly graphic,” she told the Times. “When you stick to the facts with kids, without giving them any embellishment or emotion with it, they are usually very satisfied. They just want to know that you’re being truthful with them.”

During Thursday’s press conference, Fariña said the staff members at all four schools in the vicinity of the attack had responded exactly as she had hoped.

“Teachers stayed until every child was home, until every parent got listened to, until everyone was deemed safe,” she said.

voices of the vote

Meet Denver teachers who voted yes to a strike, no to a strike — and just aren’t sure

PHOTO: PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Skinner Middle School math teacher Peter English walks out of the Riverside Baptist Church with his son, Landon, left, and daughter Brooke strapped to his chest after voting on whether to go on strike ()

Throughout the day, the parking lot of Riverside Baptist Church filled up as Denver teachers made their way into a meeting organized by their union, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association.  

Months of negotiations that failed to produce a deal between top leaders of Denver Public Schools and the union had given way to individual teachers facing a choice: To strike or not?

Along with reporting the news of the day — which you can read about here — Chalkbeat spent time visiting with teachers to get a sense of what was shaping their decision-making.

Most teachers we spoke with, both in depth and in passing, said they voted “yes” to strike. Union officials have said two-thirds of those who vote Saturday and in a second session Tuesday must sign off on a strike for it to proceed, and the prevailing wisdom among teachers we interviewed was that support is strong.

The decision, though, is far from black and white for many teachers, regardless of where they ultimately land.

Here are the stories of three teachers, all at different places:

Krista Skuce, Slavens K-8 school: Yes to strike

At the urging of teachers and parents, Slavens K-8 students turned out early on a few recent mornings to show support for their teachers. They wore red in solidarity and posed for pictures.

They also brought questions. “Why are you doing this?” was one.

Krista Skuce, a physical education teacher and 14-year Denver Public Schools employee, would tell students that she lives 40 minutes from the school because she can’t afford to live in Denver.

Krista Skuce

But there is more to her story. Her spouse, she said, is no longer able to work, beset by medical issues, unable to draw disability benefits, and in need of costly care including massage therapy, chiropractic appointments, neuromuscular therapies, and more.  

At the same time, Skuce said her pay “doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.” So she hustles, earning extra pay by driving across town to coach softball and basketball.

Skuce, like many teachers who stopped to talk about their votes on Saturday, believes the district can do more to boost teachers’ base pay — before bonuses and incentives.  

She said her salary has only increased $4,000 or $5,000 in the past 14 years, even though she has been teaching 27 years, has a master’s degree, and is National Board Certified.

Skuce said she knows that by voting to strike, she could very well end up taking money out of her own bank account. Striking teachers don’t get paychecks.

“I am hoping the district and the DCTA do the right thing and recognize the fact that there are some people here who are on the edge,” she said. “We are on the edge emotionally, financially. We know these are good people. And I think teachers are people who wake up every morning with forgiveness.

“You have to take a stand and say what you are for at some point in time in your life — and this is it,” she said. “I’m willing to do it, scary or not.”  

Jason Clymer, John F. Kennedy High School: No to strike

An English teacher at John F. Kennedy High School, Jason Clymer stands with his fellow union members in the belief teachers aren’t paid enough. He finds fault with what is asked of teachers through LEAP, the district’s growth and performance system for teachers.

“Teachers at my school feel extremely micromanaged and can’t catch a breath,” he said.  

But in the end, after being one of the first teachers in the door Saturday and attending an information session, Clymer said he voted against the strike.

“Going on strike is very hard,” said Clymer, whose wife works in human resources for the district’s central office. “And I think the agreement DPS came to was close enough.”

Clymer questioned focusing energy on what is under negotiation now: ProComp, the pay system that provides teachers one-time bonuses for things like teaching in a high-poverty school, getting strong evaluations, having students who earn high test scores, or teaching in a high-performing school.

He said he’d like to save some political leverage to focus on other issues covered by the district’s main contract with the union.

“It’s really unfortunate these things can’t all be negotiated together,” he said. “If the district came out and said, ‘We want to give you more money, not as much as you like, but we want to devote more to things like mental health services,’ I really think that would be a winning argument.”

In opposing a strike, Clymer said that he did not want to divide his fellow teachers

“Although I voted no, I believe in the union,” he said. “And if the union voted to strike, I will absolutely support the union.”

Paula Zendle, Denver Green School: Undecided about strike

Paula Zendle is dreading the moment that is appearing increasingly likely: standing before her students at the Denver Green School and explaining why she won’t be there to teach them.

“I tell them constantly, ‘Don’t miss school, don’t miss school. Don’t be absent, don’t be absent, don’t be absent,’” said Zendle, her eyes welling up with tears as she waited on a friend. “I have been fighting to avoid a strike. I hate this. It’s utterly and totally agonizing to me.”

Paula Zendle

Zendle said she left a career in the corporate world for the classroom and has been teaching eight years. She teaches English language acquisition and Spanish at the Green School, a popular and highly-rated middle school option in a district that celebrates choice.

 Zendle said she has done her research and written to the district’s chief financial officer. What bothers her is a system she believes rewards younger teachers and underpays teachers in terms of the cost of living.  

The average Denver teacher currently earns about $51,000 in base pay and $57,000 with incentives, according to data from the state education department and the district. That’s less than teachers in districts like Boulder Valley, Cherry Creek, and Littleton.

District officials have agreed to put $20 million more into teacher compensation and defended their most recent offer on Saturday as “compelling.”

For Zendle, the prospect of facing her students — and that she works in a supportive school environment — is contributing to her struggle in deciding whether to vote “yes” to strike.

So if the moment does come, what will she tell her students?

“We have the right to protest unfair taxpayer spending,” she said. “This is not only unfair, it’s unconscionable. Their priorities have been wrong for 10 years.”

Then she paused and made clear that her decision had not been made. She considers herself a person of principle, and that will guide her in making a decision.

lesson plan

Denver hopes to keep its schools open in a strike — and the union wants you to send your kids

PHOTO: Kathryn Scott Osler/The Denver Post
Students eat lunch in the cafeteria at Dora Moore K-8 School in Denver.

Superintendent Susana Cordova says she is committed to keeping Denver schools open and continuing to educate students in the event of a strike.

In Los Angeles, where a teacher strike is entering its second week, many students are watching movies and playing games. Cordova said she plans to do more for the 71,000 students in district-run schools if teachers vote to strike and state intervention does not lead to a deal. The 21,000 students who attend charter schools will not be affected.

“We want to assure parents school will stay open,” she said. “We know it is critically important that we focus on the education of our kids. Sixty percent of our kids qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. We know they depend on school not just for their meals but for their access to opportunity.”

Negotiations broke down Friday between the district and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, the union that represents teachers and special service providers such as nurses, school psychologists, and counselors. A strike vote is taking place in two sessions, one Saturday and another Tuesday. The earliest a strike could start is Jan. 28.

This would be the first strike in 25 years in the state’s largest school district. In 1994, the district used more than 1,000 substitutes to keep schools open, though many parents kept their children at home, something union leaders encouraged.

It’s not clear yet how high teacher participation in a strike would be. During the final week of bargaining, some teachers reported near universal support in their buildings, while others said some of their colleagues were uncertain. Some teachers have said they disagree with the union position in the negotiations and won’t participate as a matter of principle.

Teachers who strike do not get paid while they are not at work.

Cordova said the district is “in the process of building out our sub pool” and offering higher pay to those willing to work during a strike. But she declined to say how many substitutes the district could call on, and some teachers say they already have a hard time finding subs for routine absences.

Substitutes who work during a strike will earn $200 a day, double the normal rate, and “super subs” who work more than a certain number of days a year will get $250.

Many central office staff who have past teaching experience will be sent to schools to work with students. Cordova said the district is working on pre-packaged lesson plans for every grade and subject area so that learning can still take place, and officials will prioritize placing qualified staff members with special education and preschool students, those she deemed most vulnerable.

Students who get free or reduced-price lunch will still be able to eat in school cafeterias.

For its part, the union is encouraging parents to send their children to school, but with a different purpose.

“One major goal of a strike is for school buildings to be shut down as a demonstration of the essential labor performed by educators,” the union wrote in an FAQ document. “To this end, we encourage parents to send their students to school if their school building remains open. Student safety is paramount for all district schools, therefore the district will be obliged to close schools if safety becomes an issue due to limited staffing.”

Union officials said they were working to establish alternative daytime care with community partners like churches and Boys and Girls Clubs should schools close.