As I read and watched the September 11thanniversary coverage, I was brought back to that terrible day which transformed all of us forever.
My initial reaction when I learned a plane had hit the first tower was that I would know people who were in the World Trade Center – and I was right. Among the casualties was Andrew Zucker, a 27-year-old lawyer our family had known since he was six-years-old. His mother told me later that after having led members of his law firm to safety, he was going back to help more when the second plane hit and he disappeared. He left behind grieving parents, grandparents, siblings, nieces and nephews, friends – and a pregnant wife.
That child, now almost 10 years old, innocently joined thousands of young and unborn children who lost a parent on 9-11. Not only did that terrible day change the lives of countless children and their families, but it also changed our schools.
At the time, I was working in the central office of the Smithtown Central School District, about 30 miles from Manhattan. Minutes after the first attack, I and the five other members of the superintendent’s cabinet were summoned to the office of Dr. Charles A. Planz, the superintendent of schools, to watch the ghastly events unfolding on TV and to discuss how we should handle the catastrophe. Dr. Planz ordered a lockdown of all schools and each of us was assigned to visit two of the district’s 14 schools.
I found panic as I drove up to the first school. Parents who had rushed to the school to take their children home, had congregated in the lobby waiting for their children to be released to them. Many had come to the school because cell phone service had been knocked out and they wanted to be with their children at this time of national crisis. As I circulated among the parents, one mother was crying and visibly shaken.
“My husband is a New York City firefighter,” she told me.
Only later as events unfolded did I realize the true import of her words – that her husband and other brave first responders had rushed into the burning Twin Towers without a moment’s hesitation, ultimately sacrificing their lives to save others. Her husband was one of several first responders and employees in the towers from the Smithtown community who died saving others on September 11.
So many things changed in our country’s schools after 9-11. Schools became better at communicating with parents through websites and automated phone messaging systems. Character education blossomed. The events of September 11 were taught and commemorated. Security guards and security cameras became commonplace. Policies were written, post-Columbine codes of conduct were amended, and rules were established that were unforgiving of prejudice and threats of any kind.
Time and again as the Hearing Officer in Superintendent’s Disciplinary Hearings, I had to explain to a student and his parents that although he had made what he insisted was an idle threat or even a joke, since Sept. 11 the school district was obligated to take it seriously and impose consequences.
But some things will never change, such as the memory of disbelief and horror that day evokes, the families and friends who lost loved ones in such a horrific way, and the unborn children who are now almost 10 years old. All parents have a basic and enduring instinct to protect and shelter their children from harm. When they send their children to school each day, they have implicit faith that their schools are their trusted partners in that essential endeavor.