Saving Face or Safeguarding Children
A completely ridiculous situation involving the board of education and the fire department of the Town of Boonton, N. J., has occurred, which focusses attention on the effects of fire service campaigns to safeguard our schools. It has long been the rule that a fire chief, charged by law with the protection of life and property from fire, has the authority to insist on reasonable regulations to assist him in discharging this responsibility. Apparently this rule is not applicable in some parts of the State of New Jersey when it concerns a public school.
Sometime ago, Boonton legally created a fire prevention bureau within its fire department. Following the nationwide horror resulting from the Chicago school tragedy, the bureau proceeded to “get tough” in matters of school fire safety. A total of 63 violations were listed following an inspection of the local schools. At a meeting with the board of education, it was agreed that all would be corrected; the majority were cleared up in a matter of weeks. At the time, the violations were not made public, due to an upcoming referendum concerning a new high school building. It was felt that publication of the hazards would unduly alarm the parents and might jeopardize the question.
The most important single item concerned fire escapes on an overcrowded high school. The board of education included a budget item in the referendum for the construction of the escapes. After successful passage of the referendum, the board went about getting bids for two enclosed stairwells within the $20,000 limit set in the referendum.
The fire prevention bureau patiently waited for the fulfillment of the agreement until it was evident that the stairs would not be built by the opening of the school for the 1959-60 year. It forced the board of education into advertising for bids on fire escapes by declaring the school would be closed if the devices were not constructed by the opening day. This threat was made good when the bureau served an order on the board instructing it not to open the school since the fire escapes were not in place.
Then began the legal byplay culminating in a ridiculous impasse. The Boonton Board of Education attorney advised the members to disregard the order as the bureau had no jurisdiction over the public schools. Thwarted by inaction, the bureau took the case to court to test the ordinance and the state law empowering its own creation. The legal decision favored the school board.
The presiding magistrate, basing his findings on the wording of the local law, noted that the ordinance does not mention the closing of any building and that neither the municipal court nor the fire prevention bureau has jurisdiction to close a school under the state law. He also questioned whether or not the bureau even had the power to order installation of fire escapes in a public school. The judge pointed out that he had no power to issue a declaratory judgment to determine the right of a municipality to regulate public schools for any purpose and if this was sought, the town must go before the State Superior Court.
The result of this decision has implications which go far beyond the township limits of Boonton and even the state line of New Jersey. It is plain that other school officials hard-pressed by fire inspectors to correct deficiencies may attempt to follow this lead and challenge the authority of the fire chief. However, the Boonton Board of Education apparently has discovered it won a hollow victory, for it immediately offered to cooperate with the fire prevention bureau by inviting it to—continue to make inspections—and recommend the correction of any hazards that inspections may reveal.
It is apparent that in pressing for a determination of the issue, very little consideration was given to the continuing safety of the children who are required to attend the school in question. Since it has been settled that the Boonton Fire Department has no jurisdiction over the schools, what steps have been taken to insure the safety of the pupils pending the completion of the fire escapes? It is possible that the many questions raised by this unfortunate turn of events will require further legal action before it is resolved. In the meantime, are the pupils of the school required to risk their lives every time they enter the building? It may be comforting for some to revel in authority backed up by a court decision. On the other hand, it should be very sobering to contemplate the burden of responsibility which the same decision placed squarely on the shoulders of a school board!