Playing with Fire: Passing the buck on safety

When it comes to the dozens of safety code violations at many of Rockland's private schools, the blame is shared between school administrators and local and state officials, a News 12 investigation has found.

Some even say they put their jobs on the line to speak to News 12's Tara Rosenblum during her five-month investigation into mostly Jewish schools that flunked crucial fire safety checks.

Spring Valley Fire Inspector Ray Guarnuccio says he worries for students every day. He says it's only a matter of time before a child is hurt or killed at one of Rockland's many religious schools.

"I don't know how parents allow their kids in these schools...you have to see the conditions in the classrooms," Guarnuccio says.

Some of the schools that News 12 observed had hanging electrical wires, expired extinguishers and uncovered ceiling lights.

Other schools were single-family homes that were seemingly converted into schools. The Ohr Yochanan Yeshiva in Suffern has more than 200 young boys arriving to study in a 4,000-square-foot family home.

Rabbi David Kalisch insists his yeshiva is safe, and town inspectors have backed him up. The state says differently. According to a scathing report from January, five serious violations were found - including sprinkler system problems and far-too-narrow corridors.

News 12 paid visits to 54 other private schools in the area and found a majority of them were reluctant to share their safety records or had reports that were outdated, expired or missing.

Rabbi Moshe Schwab, who founded Yeshiva Degel Hatorah in Spring Valley, says he believes there are anti-Semitic undertones in the ongoing debate over fire safety. He says many yeshivas are well-intentioned, but might not be able to afford the costs of inspections. Other times, he says it's hard to even find an inspector to perform the task.

Guarnaccio admits that more needs to be done.

"All I can say is we are obviously doing the best we can but that's obviously not enough," he told News 12.

The New York Secretary of State Cesar A. Perales issued an order last month that said Spring Valley has not complied with the minimum standards relating to periodic fire safety and property maintenance inspections.

Guarnaccio and his part-time worker Frank Youngman say without more state funding to hire more people, their hands are tied.

News 12 caught up with newly appointed Board of Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia about the pervasive problem in Rockland. She said it was "particularly not our roles at the state Department of Education to do inspections, so we've alerted people to which it is their responsibility."

A responsibility, she says lies, with Secretary of State Perales.

Perales told News 12 it's the Department of Education that can shut down unsafe schools by revoking their certificates of occupancy.

"We will assist the state Education Department in developing an immediate action plan," Perales added.

Until that action plan becomes actual action, there will be dozens of schools out of compliance, overworked fire inspectors, hesitant state officials and tens of thousands of private school students at risk.

As the result of this report and increased pressure from state lawmakers, News 12 learned Tuesday that the state Education Department has sent out -- for the first time -- a letter reminding all private schools about their annual fire safety requirements. The report was due last week.

News 12 is told to expect an updated list of non-compliant schools in the next few weeks.

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