Written by Denise Nash Friday, 28 August 2009 00:00
In 2001, then-Governor George Pataki signed into law a measure that required all New York State schools to install new safety devices on all moving partition walls used in school gymnasiums and auditoriums. The legislation was designed to prevent accidental deaths and serious physical injuries.
“This new law will help to ensure the physical safety of New York’s children and prevent future tragedies from occurring in our schools,” Pataki said at the time.
Legislation was introduced following the accidental death of 9-year-old Deanna Moon in 1991 in her Melville elementary school in hopes of preventing such a death from happening again. Deanna was killed after being crushed by a gymnasium partition door. It was later found that the teacher tampered with the mechanism jamming a jump rope into the safety device.
In 2001, 12-year-old Rashad Richardson was killed after being crushed by an automatic partition in his Ithaca school gymnasium showing the need for the law to be enacted, which it was soon after his death in 2001.
As stated in the law, all electrically operated partitions and room dividers in schools and educational institutions are required to be equipped with safety devices which, subject to standards established by the commissioner of education, stop the motion of such partitions and room dividers upon the presence of a body in front of the leading edge of such partition or divider, as well as in the stacking area.
There are three main types of electronic partitions: electronic folding partitions, which are large, extremely heavy doors that are hinged at each panel; electronic coil walls, which are predominately found in auditoriums and run with a track both on the floor and ceiling; and electronic divider curtains, which roll or fold up to the ceiling and are mainly used to divide gymnasiums, classrooms or auditoriums into different areas.
These electronic partitions have to comply with New York State Education law and New York State Education Department regulations. The State Education Department has required two emergency stop safety switches on new partitions since the 1991 accident.
In 1992, Assemblyman Jim Conte helped pass legislation that required school districts to post notification of the dangers of partition doors and the safe procedures for operating such devices near the controls.
“The law also required gym partitions to be inspected for safety by the local school districts,” Conte’s Chief of Staff Jenifer Pratico said. “This law was in response to the tragic death of Deanna Moon who got caught in the closing door.
Senator Carl Marcellino is currently seeking an amendment to the legislation that clarifies that schools must use a licensed maintenance person to service the doors annually. Senator Marcellino and Senator James Seward are putting the bill in the state Senate and Assemblyman Conte will do so in the Assembly.
“The tragic deaths of two young people resulted in a law that would prevent similar accidents from happening ever again. If these partitions and their safety devices are not properly maintained and serviced, we could easily witness another horrific injury or death of one of our students. A simple amendment to the 2001 law would ensure that the steps we took eight years ago were not in vain. I look forward to this legislation passing as soon as possible,” said Marcellino.
A recent study, which was completed by Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, said “injuries to American children during physical education classes increased 150 percent from1997-2007” and stated that the increase has less to do with lively gym programs, but more to do with a lack of adult supervision, a decline in school nurses and larger class sizes.
“Children got hurt by running into equipment or having contact with structures or other persons,” said Lara McKenzie, the study’s senior author.
This study, which was based on hospital records, stresses the need to make gym class safer. The required safety devices on the electronic partitions helps reach that goal.
Like any other school safety issue, the state education department is required to make sure these doors are in working order and that the individual school districts adhere to the law. This amendment would clarify that regularly scheduled maintenance must be performed by a trained professional and the cost would be picked up by the state, not the individual school districts. The law allots additional state building aid to school districts for the costs of purchasing safety devices for electrically operated partitions and room dividers.
After the law was put in place, approximately 5,500 dividers were retrofitted with the safety technology required by the law. The issue has become getting these schools to comply with the regulations, which require staff training and annual maintenance, in accordance with the manufacturers instructions.
The design of the SafePath system, which is manufactured in the United States and distributed by Gym Doors Repairs Inc., a Long Island-based company, begins with control stations at both sides having to be operated simultaneously on opposite ends of the partition. Once activated, the SafePath System surrounds both sides of the partitions with invisible protection zones, which form a blanket of coverage that when intruded halts operation and sounds an alarm. Coverage spans the entire length of the partition, packing area and final closure. It is a no contact design.
The average annual cost to maintain the system is approximately $400 and the parts are guaranteed in some contracts when the system is maintained properly. The initial cost of installing the system is approximately $4,000.
According to the manufacturer, many systems on Long Island are not properly maintained on an annual basis by a certified technician.
Levittown Superintendent of Schools Dr. Herman Sirois said that Supervisor of Maintenance Joe Ewald “checks the functioning of all moveable partitions (gyms and otherwise) every month. They are checked and serviced annually by an independent contractor.”
“We test what is called the Safe Path operation, which verifies that the electric eye detects any movement in the gym, and that the partition can only be operated when two people insert keys at separate locations,” he added.
Island Trees Superintendent of Schools Dr. Charles Murphy said, “Island Trees follows the normal maintenance procedures with regard to the large partition doors.”
There have been two deaths in New York State and one in New Jersey as well as many reported and unreported injuries from these partitions when they were not properly maintained. Unmaintained or uninspected electronic panels contain components that become deteriorated or become loose and dangerous as many of the components are overhead and over 20 feet high. Strict qualifications help ensure proper maintenance procedures are followed.
In March 1973, a 12-year-old New Jersey resident was killed during gym class, in addition to New York’s two fatalities of Deanna Moon and Rashad Richardson.
The electronic partitions were always unattended when these accidents took place and were sometimes rigged to save time. It takes three-minutes to completely extend or stack the partitions, as they move slowly due to their size.
The question becomes, what entity is in charge of enforcing this law and ensures that the schools are having the required maintenance done.
According to Carl Thurnau, coordinator of Facilities Planning for the New York State Education Department, maintaining the buildings within a school district is not the same as maintaining a house.
“When you build a house, you get a Certificate of Occupancy (CO) and if you never change anything in the house, you never need another CO and never have to see another building inspector again. That CO is good for the life of the house unless you put an addition on,” explained Thurnau. “This is not how it works in public schools. We have an annual fire and safety inspection and an annual CO is issued. Every school gets inspected by a certified code enforcement official every 11 months. Over the course of a decade, doing it 11 months, schools get inspected in every season of the year. You will see problems that crop up in the summertime that might not over the wintertime. Within the last year or year and a half, we have updated our fire and safety inspection process to make sure that the fire inspectors are looking for the documentation [which is provided by the school district] that the partitions are being maintained. The school district is obligated under the regulations to maintain the partitions and keep records of the maintenance.”
In New York State, a certified code enforcement official is an individual who has taken the appropriate training courses through the NYS Department of State. “School districts are entitled to hire any individual who is a certified code enforcement official to complete the inspection,” said Thurnau. “The school district has the manual and the information and provides that to the inspector.”
Thurnau explained that if a school did not provide the documentation, the district would have failed that portion of the inspection and the State Education Department would be notified and would follow up with the school district.
In addition to the obvious risk of injury or death, if an annual New York State Fire and Safety Inspection deems the system unsafe, penalties include having the partitions disconnected, after 30 days on non-compliance, a Certificate of Occupancy might be lifted and insurance companies may drop coverage.