NEW ROCHELLE, NY -- A former New Rochelle High School student has filed a $26 million dollar federal lawsuit against the City School District of New Rochelle for failing to evacuate her during a fire emergency. A second student has not yet filed a lawsuit but is expected to do so. Both students are wheelchair-enabled and were left behind as every other student in the school was evacuated during a fire emergency on January 31, 2013.
The complaint references numerous false statements made by school officials, as reported by the United States Department of Justice, and admitted to in a consent decree signed by the District over the summer.
In particular, the District has admitted that statements made by Director of Special Education Yvette Goorevitch and New Rochelle High School Vice Principal Joseph Starvaggi were false.
Starvaggi claimed that New Rochelle Fire Department officials instructed him to keep one student in a "holding room" on the third floor of the "new wing" of the school.
New Rochelle Fire Chief Lou DiMeglio, in an exclusive interview with Talk of the Sound called those claims untrue. The DOJ received similar testimony from NRFD officials during their investigation.
Several days after the fire, Yvette Goorevitch issued a statement to the press:
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. Specifics of the plans can be obtained from the schools. I spoke to the father last evening when the student came home and reported her perception of the situation. Joe Starvaggi spoke to the father today and explained the reality of yesterday’s situation. In addition, this student’s access plans have been scrutinized and there were no concerns voiced about her evacuation and safety plan.
Though not a requirement, we have recently ordered evacuation chairs for the HS and they have been obtained. They have rollers on them to facilitate evacuations.
Many of these statements are false or deliberately misleading.
"Holding rooms are identified and marked in consultation with the Fire Department."
The U.S. Department of Justice findings were that this was not true and the District admitted this in accepting the consent decree.
"I spoke to the father last evening"
The father gave testimony that no such call occurred.
"Joe Starvaggi spoke to the father today"
The father gave testimony that no such call occurred.
"no concerns voiced about her evacuation and safety plan"
The U.S. Department of Justice findings were that this was not true and the District admitted this in accepting the consent decree. Records from the DOJ show there were repeated, elaborate complaints made over a three year period leading up to the fire, all of which were ignored by Goorevitch and Starvaggi.
"Though not a requirement, we have recently ordered evacuation chairs for the HS"
The U.S. Department of Justice findings were that this was not true and the District admitted this in accepting the consent decree. Records from the DOJ show and the lawsuit explains "In or around the Fall of 2011, RF attended a meeting at the High School to address his daughter's safety concerns. Among others, the meeting was also attended by the High School Vice Principal Joseph Starvaggi, Director of Security Bruce Danieli, the Director of Maintenance Mr. Gallagher, AND Len Salvatore from Westchester County MSC-Medicaid service coordinator. At this meeting, RF raised concerns about his daughter's classes being held on inaccessible floors and whether she could be evacuated from those floors in an emergency. RF requested that [JF]'s classes be moved off the Third Floor to alleviate their safety concerns. Also at this meeting, the case worker recommended that the High School purchase evacuation chairs to be used for her in the event of an evacuation. During a meeting on January 4, 2012, the High School representative (Yvette Goorevitch) stated that she would be purchasing the evacuation chairs for the High School. She added that it was coming out of her budget. But nothing had been done by the end of the High School's Spring Semester 2012."
"[evacuation chairs] they have been obtained"
The U.S. Department of Justice findings were that this was not true and the District admitted this in accepting the consent decree. Records from the DOJ show and the lawsuit explains "Two evacuation chairs were finally purchased and arrived at the High School in or around August 2012. But they remained in storage until after the January 31, 2013 emergency incident described below. On December 5, 2012, plaintiffs had another meeting with Yvette Goorevitch and inquired about the status of the evacuation chairs. Ms. Goorevitch asked JF if she had seen the new evacuation chairs for her at the High School and JF replied 'no'."
In July, 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 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 directed the District to pay compensatory damages to each of the students who were not evacuated on January 31, 2013.
Feltenstein's complaint largely restates the findings by the United States Attorney and asks for $13 million dollars each on two causes of action along with costs.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Talk of the Sound intends to provide a more comprehensive analysis of the entire matter in the coming weeks with some recommendations on how to improve ADA compliance in the future.