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Councilwoman Wants to Restrict Science Experiment That Burned Students

By Emily Frost | March 21, 2014 6:57am
 The "Rainbow" experiment has led to student injuries when not conducted properly, City Councilwoman Helen Rosenthal said.
Pol Calls for Regulation of Chemistry Experiments in Classrooms
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UPPER WEST SIDE — In the wake of a high school chemistry class explosion that left two students with serious burns, a local politician is calling on the city to force schools to inform parents of any safety violations and to ban the experiment in classrooms that don't take proper safety precautions.

City Councilwoman Helen Rosenthal has submitted a resolution calling for a ban on teachers conducting the "rainbow experiment" — in which various chemicals are set aflame to produce different colors — without using correct safety equipment.

A Beacon High School sophomore chemistry teacher was conducting the experiment on Jan. 2 when an explosion occurred, severely burning a 15-year-old boy and 15-year-old girl. The boy was only recently released from the hospital, Rosenthal said.

"[The experiment's] educational value does not outweigh the possibility of having an accident like Beacon," Rosenthal said.

The teacher conducting the experiment, Anna Poole, was removed from the school in February, the DOE said, and the FDNY issued the school violations for multiple safety flaws, including improperly storing chemicals and poor ventilation.

Rosenthal's legislation would make it mandatory for a school to let parents know about any violations issued to a school by the Department of Buildings, the Fire Department or the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

The safety of the rainbow experiment has been questioned by the science education community, and the U.S. Chemical Safety Board issued a video drawing on students' experiences of experiments gone wrong, warning of the dangers of the test, Rosenthal explained.

Intro 109 — which Rosenthal drafted although the Council is not allowed to legislate on curriculum — cited the DOE's Science Safety Manual, which mentions "performing the experiment under a properly functioning fume hood, and limiting the amount of accelerants in the room."

The Beacon High School science classroom used during the experiment Jan. 2 did not have a hood to properly ventilate the lab, resulting in the FDNY issuing a violation.

The FDNY did not respond to an inquiry about the status of the eight violations issued to the school. The DOE and school principal Ruth Lacey also did respond to requests for comment.

Beacon parents were not notified of the violations against the school and have received no additional information about whether the safety issues have been solved, Rosenthal said.

The school held a meeting Jan. 14 about the incident and the principal reached out to many parents, the DOE said.

Rosenthal's measure has been sent to the City Council education committee for a hearing and has co-sponsorship from Councilmembers Margaret Chin, Andy King, Peter Koo, Rory Lancman, Mark Levine, Laurie Cumbo, Donovan Richards, Karen Koslowitz and Annabel Palma.  

"The intention for this bill is for parents or legal guardians to be aware of violations and updated on the DOE’s progress in addressing these issues," the bill says.

Violation notifications to parents would have to be made within seven days, be posted on the DOE's website and be given to the City Council representative, the proposed law says.

Parents and the correct City Council representative must also be made aware of the plan and timeline for addressing the violations. It would require notification about any alterations from that plan and an update once the problems were fixed.

"As a parent, I find it horrifying," Rosenthal said of the lack of notification parents get about safety violations.

"This stuff is so important," she said. "It’s not something you can be flip about."