Teachers and parent leaders were in open revolt at Newark’s Harriet Tubman school today after administrators of the state-operated school district ordered them to bring the children into a school that was filled with the smell of gas fumes.
The courageous teachers–all of whom could now face disciplinary action for insubordination–refused orders from Malcolm Outlaw, the school’s principal, and administrators from 2 Cedar Street, according to Dawn Haynes, the head of the school’s parent teacher organization.
“Administrators were treating teachers as if they were children, ordering them back into a school that was obviously not safe,” said Haynes, whose two children attend the school. “The teachers were trying to protect the children.”
Michael Dixon, a vice president of the Newark Teachers Union (NTU), was called to the scene. He later posted a Facebook criticism of a security guard who ordered teachers back into the building.
Despite assurances from administrators that the school was safe and the children should be brought in, the state administration, headed by superintendent Cami Anderson, ordered all the children–some 400– transported by bus to Speedway School, blocks away.
“I wasn’t told where my children were until after noon,” said Haynes. Other parents said they received no notification of what happened until after 1 pm.
Haynes said teachers immediately smelled the gas odor when they began showing up this morning. They were ordered inside the building to sign in but allowed to go back outside. The administrators never denied they could smell fumes.
“We were told that workers were using gasoline generators at the school last night,” said Haynes. “But then the story changed.”
The story changed after PSEGCO trucks and the Fire Department arrived. According to Haynes, the administrators said the leak was actually coming from a building across the street from the school, not from inside Tubman.
(UPDATE: According to sources familiar with what happened, there may have been two sources of fumes. Although NPS employees will not speak for the record, it was learned that either school employees or contractors’ employees were in the building the night before working on an internal generator and its use caused fumes. At the same time, however, gas fumes emanated from abandoned houses across the street from the school.)
“The administrators said Public Service declared the building safe, but teachers and children were coughing,” Haynes said.
That is when teachers began taking their children out of the school, refusing direct orders from Outlaw and others to bring the students back in.
Outlaw, without mentioning orders to bring children into the building, said he building was evacuated more than once–he used the term “re-evacuated.”
He posted this statement on the school website:
“At approximately 6:20am this morning there was an odor of gas within the Harriet Tubman School building. Immediately the head custodian was notified, who in turn called the Newark Fire Department and PSE&G. All staff members who were already in the school building at the time were evacuated. As additional students and staff members arrived to the building for morning entry they were not allowed to enter the building.
“The Newark Fire Department, PSE&G and the Newark Public Schools’ Head of Facilities all arrived to the building within minutes of being notified. All parties conducted an investigative walkthrough and performed an air quality test which proved that there was no longer gas in the air, and that the building was all clear for students and staff to return. Students and staff were then allowed to enter the building.
“As a precaution, due to a lingering smell of gas outside of the school, the school was re-evacuated and all students and staff were bussed to Speedway Avenue School where they remained for the entirety of the instructional day. Please be assured that all measures were taken to ensure the safety of all students and staff members and to return the students to learning as quickly as possible. If you have any further concerns or questions, please feel free to contact the school at 973.733.6934.”