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School Lacking Own PA System Would Not Be Prepared in Crisis, Officials Say

By Emily Frost | September 4, 2014 3:52pm
 The school doesn't have access to its own PA system, making communication about safety and school issues impossible, staff said. 
Columbia Secondary School Lacks Working PA System
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MORNINGSIDE HEIGHTS — Parents were dismayed to discover Thursday their school still does not have its own public address system — a situation they fear could cause dangerous delays during an emergency.

The 700-student public 6-12 Columbia Secondary School opened on West 123rd Street seven years ago but has never had its own PA system, parents and school officials said. 

Despite repeated lobbying to the Department of Education, CSS parents said they're still in the dark as to when the problem will get addressed.

CSS shares its building with the elementary school P.S. 125 and a KIPP Charter Middle School, but only one PA system exists to serve all three schools, said CSS dean and athletic director Arthur Puritz.

An announcement made by one school would be heard by all three under the current system, so the PA for CSS's classrooms remains off so that the speakers can be used exclusively by P.S. 125, where the system's control board is located, Puritz explained. 

"I do a lot of running around," he said.

Parent Kevin Daly said staffers are often hustling through the halls "like a carrier pigeon."

Additionally, parent volunteers are often used to help with the delivery of school-wide news, said parent Alison Loeb.

"It's before 'old school,'" she said. "It's prehistoric."

What worries parents most is what could happen in a crisis — like a shooting or a fire — in which an announcement to students at one school to shelter-in-place and stay in their classrooms could not be made quickly.

In that situation, Puritz said he would have to call someone in the main P.S. 125 office on the second floor of the six-floor building and ask for the PA system to be switched on for all 25 CSS classrooms.

If that didn't work, Puritz would have to go down to main P.S. 125 office from CSS's fourth- and fifth-floor classrooms and switch it over himself — or just run from classroom to classroom spreading the word, thereby putting himself at risk, he said.

Furthermore, the PA boxes are not even working in three of CSS's classrooms, Puritz added. 

"We can't have a hard lockdown," he said.

It's a worst-case scenario that has played out in the minds of many parents over the years, more than 300 of which signed a petition addressed to the DOE in March 2013 asking for their own PA system. 

"It's a safety issue. It is impossible to run authentic drills for lockdowns without a PA system," CSS principal Miriam Nightengale said. "We should be prepared and it's impossible."

Just a few blocks east, the clocks and PA system at P.S. 242 on West 122nd Street are also not working, despite parent outcry and promises from the DOE that they would be fixed over the summer. 

Further complicating matters at CSS, the school also doesn't have the use of a bell system since it is connected to the PA. The school got creative three years ago and spent about $5,000 from its budget to install an electronic bell system with ringing chimes. Before that, teachers relied on synchronized watches, said CSS tech specialist David Ocampo.

And at one point, a cowbell was used to signal the end of a class period, Nightengale noted.

The communication hurdles are frustrating given the school's lofty achievement goals, Daly explained. This past year, in the school's first graduating class, every CSS senior except one boy who joined the Marines was accepted and is attending college. They're headed to elite institutions like Harvard, Columbia and MIT, among others, according to parents.

"We’re trying to cram in as much instructional time as possible," Daly said.

Parents and administrators said they've been told by the DOE that the PA system is working, a fact spokeswoman Marge Feinberg reiterated to DNAinfo Thursday. 

Feinberg also said that a new system is on its way, but did not say when it would arrive. Parents said that's a line they've heard before, and they're frustrated the work wasn't started over the summer. 

"The fact that we have to campaign in order to get a PA system for years on someone’s list is outrageous," Daly said.