The tragic death of 12-year-old Nicole Suriel, who drowned during a class trip to Long Beach, is putting the practices that Columbia Secondary School and the Department of Education enforce during school trips under scrutiny. Suriel's parents say they did not sign a permission slip for the trip and Juan Suriel recounted hearing about his daughter's death: "The principal called, 'We have to go to the beach. I think Nicole is dead.' I said, 'You're joking. Only two or three hours ago I spoke to her.' It just doesn't make sense."
Suriel and other students at Columbia Secondary were visiting Long Beach as a reward for fundraising (it was previously reported they were visiting the beach as part of their June term studies). Students—supervised by three adults (first-year teacher Erin Bailey plus a substitute teacher and a student intern)—went into the water even though no lifeguards were on duty (they start working during weekdays next week), which was clearly indicated on signs, and some were swept out by a current. Long Beach City Manager Charles Theofan said, "Witnesses told police officers that the kids were climbing all over the jetty -- and that's the most dangerous thing you can do. There was a complete lack of any supervision. It was just a recipe for disaster."
Other parents say that the permission slips said nothing about swimming or about going to Long Beach. One angry parent said, "If you send a first year teacher out to a beach with 24 kids and not expect them to get into the water on a 90 degree day, then something is beyond your comprehension." And a beachgoer who witnessed the horror said, "When the girl disappeared, the teachers started running around the beach, 'Oh can somebody help?' They didn't know how to swim, no lifeguards, so irresponsible."
The Department of Education is investigating the matter—apparently the sub may have been Bailey's boyfriend; Columbia Secondary's principal is ultimately responsible for field trips—while Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer has asked that any other field trips scheduled for the rest of the school year be cancelled and wants a review of field trip procedures, proposing stricter rules for who can supervise "riskier" trips. But one principal told the Wall Street Journal that Stringer's reaction might be premature, "To think that the response is bureaucratic approval for everything we do is wrong. We make judgment calls and you're paying us to make judgment calls."
The school's principal, Dr. Jose Maldonado-Rivera, has not commented about the incident. Juan Suriel said of his daughter, "She was a very content girl, always laughing. She had a great understanding of so many things. She liked to be with people. Everybody liked her."