Joseph Gomez Elementary School Principal Jamon Liburd told nearly 100 concerned parents Monday he would push for a structural assessment of all the buildings on the more than 40 year-old St. Thomas campus.
Early Monday morning, a portion of the ceiling above the walkway in the second-to-fourth grade building on Gomez’s campus collapsed, injuring a teacher who was walking in between the classrooms. Classes will be in session at Gomez Tuesday, with most of the students in the building being relocated to the kindergarten/first grade wing and other areas such as the art room, band room and gym space.
Liburd said everyone was evacuated quickly after the ceiling collapse, leaving behind backpacks and other items that he said would be removed by school personnel and returned to the students when the building was safe to enter.
All students were inside at the time and were unharmed. But the school was flooded almost immediately by emergency personnel, government officials and parents who either came in to help and assess what was going on, or get more information about who was hurt and whether school was being dismissed.
In the wake of the incident, St. Thomas-St. John Superintendent Jeanette Smith-Barry called a meeting at the school for 5:30 p.m. and there told parents that dismissal is always a last resort – especially when the students are safe and accounted for.
Smith-Barry said she understood that in emergency situations, it is normal for parents to worry about their children. But the angry and agitated response from those who came out earlier in the morning quickly escalated the situation – especially when parents started taking children home that were not even theirs.
“I was waiting all day for a call, from someone telling me they could not find their child,” she said. During the incident, Smith-Barry and others – including Gov. John deJongh Jr. – attempted to calm the crowd that had gathered in front of the school, but many were emotional and said they were just concerned with getting their children off the campus as soon as possible.
Speaking during Monday night’s meeting, the parents were calmer and many nodded in agreement as Smith-Barry explained that the school needed to make sure that none of the students were lost, injured or worse before they could leave. The school has more than 600 students; an estimated 100 or so parents came out for the meeting to get the full assessment and an update on what happens when school starts again in the morning.
In a statement Monday afternoon, acting Education Commissioner Donna Frett-Gregory said that a team from the Department of Public Works was sent to the school after the incident to assess damage and found that the problem was not foundational. She also said that the walkway ceilings will be replaced and the department will be moving “quickly” to begin repairs in conjunction with Public Works.
Liburd told parents at the meeting that he is also pushing for all the other buildings, along with other wooden structures on campus, to be assessed as the repairs move forward.
There were few questions from the crowd after the speakers wrapped up, but one parent did ask when the buildings were last inspected. Liburd said he believes that an inspection is done every year before school begins, while Smith-Barry said that the ceiling that collapsed Monday had damage that would not have been visible to anyone looking at it.
On the topic of school security and safety, another parent asked when the campus – which is open in many areas – would be completely fenced in. The department has been promising to complete that project for years, and students are placed in danger when gunfire from neighborhoods surrounding the campus erupts during the day, she said.
Smith-Barry said the project is under way, but that the process was delayed by bids from contractors that came in higher than the funding Education had available.
Another parent, Clara Freeman, also suggested that parents concerned about Monday’s incident or any other issues on campus should resurrect the school’s parent-teacher association, which is now inactive.
“I’ve been to meetings before, and it was always the same parents coming out – it was nothing like this,” Freeman said. “But don’t forget, we have a voice, we can make things move.”
Before leaving the meeting, parents were also encouraged to keep talking to their children about the incident. The school district sent out counselors to the Gomez campus Monday, and district coordinator Winifred Anthony-Todman explained that the students might continue to be distressed in the days to come.
Parents should be patient and encourage students to talk about what they saw, heard and felt, she said.