As you may know, a fireball erupted last week at the Beacon School, a prestigious public high school on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. It apparently happened when a chemistry teacher’s scientific demonstration went wrong, and the result was two students burned -- one critically.
The initial blame for the accident fell on the teacher, although she was described as experienced and a known stickler for safety. The experiment itself was fairly routine; various metals generate flames of different colors when burned, and the teacher was burning flakes of those metals in sequence to create a rainbow.
Unfortunately, the experiment took place in a makeshift lab that wasn’t fully equipped, for example, with a chemical fume hood. Additionally, the teacher did not insist that students wear safety goggles or fire aprons, and the student with the more serious burns was in the front row, about five feet away.
According to FDNY fire investigators, however, it may be the school itself, not the teacher, who was most responsible for the students’ injuries. Experts interviewed by the New York Times lamented that this fire is just one in a string of tragedies brought about by systemic shortcomings at schools nationwide.
The FDNY cited the Beacon School for eight safety hazards, several of them significant enough to require correction within 10 days.
The school’s chemical storage room was packed with far more flammable liquids and toxic substances than are allowed by law, the FDNY said. Another citation was for poor safety practices and equipment; another for failure to inspect chemical fume hoods regularly.
Lack of proper ventilation in the makeshift chemistry classroom may have been a key factor. Improper ventilation might have allowed flammable fumes to collect in the air and ignite.
When children and young people are injured in the care of a school, action must be taken. The Beacon School is considered one of the city’s finest, but all public schools face budget pressures and may cut corners in seemingly less-urgent areas.
The school needs to reexamine how it assigns classrooms, its safety policies and anything else that may have contributed to the accident. The chemistry teacher remains appropriately under investigation, but she should not be used as a scapegoat when serious safety hazards may have been the result of institutional negligence.
- New York Daily News, “FDNY issues 8 violations to Beacon High School after lab fire,” Joe Kemp, Jan. 8, 2014
- The New York Times, "8 Violations for School in Wake of Lab Fire," Nina Bernstein, Jan. 8, 2014