Students and educators sue DOE claiming school for deaf children lacks proper emergency notification system

P.S. 347 American Sign Language and English Lower School is facing a lawsuit from several of its students and educators for having an allegedly flawed emergency notification system.

Several students and educators from P.S. 347 American Sign Language and English Lower School, a public school for both deaf and hard of hearing children in Manhattan, are suing the New York City Department of Education alleging the lack of an appropriate emergency notification system.

The plaintiffs, many of whom are deaf or hard of hearing, have experienced times where they were not aware there was an emergency drill happening. They are now demanding that the city “provide effective communication through the use of color-coded visual alarm systems and smart boards in each classroom, hallway, and bathroom within P.S. 347.” 

The plaintiffs assert that “the DOE has put students and staff who are deaf or hard of hearing at risk by refusing to install an appropriate emergency notification system that would alert deaf members of the school community to fires, active shooter lockdowns, and other emergencies.”

The plaintiffs allege in the complaint, filed June 21 in the U.S. Southern District of New York, that they are unable to hear announcements and emergency drill alarms and had to be alerted by someone else who could hear them. As a result, the students and educators have experienced “severe extreme humiliation, emotional pain and trauma, loss of opportunity, and dignitary harm.”

Jonathan Berger, the attorney representing the students and their parents, told amNewYork Metro that the lawsuit, in a nutshell, is about effective communication.

“The system that the school has in emergency settings does not provide effective communication,” Berger said. “If there is an emergency, we need to make sure they are able to understand what is being communicated to them.”

While the school’s fire alarm does flash during drills, this isn’t enough for real-life emergencies or other non-fire-related situations, Junou Odige, an attorney for the UFT and educators, told amNewYork Metro. 

The school also allegedly lacks fire alarm lights in the bathroom and lockdown lighting, according to one of the plaintiffs. The school community typically relies on text notifications, but at least one plaintiff has alleged they do not consistently receive these texts.

Keith Gross, an attorney who is representing the UFT and the nine educator-plaintiffs, told amNewYork Metro that the injunctive relief — a new notification system — that the plaintiffs are seeking “can be easily implemented right away.”

“The school and the defendants have been made aware that this is an ongoing issue,” Gross said. “It’s something that has to be addressed immediately.”

Currently, the school uses a public address system that produces auditory announcements, which many of the students and staff are unable to understand. The text notification system is also simply not enough to alert the school community of important announcements, Gross said.

“If someone is teaching and educating students, they’re not supposed to be looking at a phone,” Gross said. “Or a text message may not be received in a timely manner.”

Parents of the plaintiffs stated in the complaint that they have made specific requests to the school, for years, to install an alarm system that is better equipped to communicate with students and staff who are deaf.

One such system would be a color-coded visual alert notification system and a smart board so that children and staff are able to identify colors associated with a certain announcement. A smart board would then act as another visual aid and display written messages alongside the alarm. 

Ideally, this system would be placed “everywhere and every room” of the school, Berger said. 

The DOE has not yet responded to amNewYork Metro’s request for comment regarding the plaintiffs’ allegations and demands. The administration is required to respond to the lawsuit on Wednesday, Aug. 23. 

The school’s mission is “to provide a bilingual education that values American Sign Language and Deaf culture and to help bridge the Deaf and hearing communities in New York City.” P.S. 347 was founded in 1906 and is located at 225 East 23rd St. 
The plaintiffs are alleging discrimination on the basis of disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, the New York State Human Rights Law, and the New York City Human Rights Law.
“Can you imagine a child — and there’s an emergency going on — not having access to communication?,” Berger said. “That’s pretty scary stuff. We’re here to make sure that enough is enough.”