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Make the Maspeth Crash Horror a Teachable Moment for New York City

2:15 PM EDT on September 16, 2013

The latest bombshell from the horrific traffic crash that brutally injured at least three Maspeth girls walking to their middle school last week exploded this morning, with a report in DNAinfo that city education officials ordered the school principal to respond to the incident by warning students not to use electronic devices while traveling to and from school.

Camillo Turriciano, the principal of I.S. 73 in Maspeth, issued that warning to parents just hours after a 40-year-old man drove his Honda SUV onto the sidewalk and into a group of girls walking to school shortly before 8 a.m. last Thursday. Video footage from a deli at the crash scene, on Grand Avenue near 71st Street in Queens, shows three girls walking unsuspectingly on the sidewalk far from the curb as the Honda driver hurtled toward them from behind. One girl was smashed by the car’s front right cattle guard -- as depicted in a grotesque freeze-frame photo in today’s News -- and hurled forward out of the frame of the video. None of the three appeared to be wearing earbuds or headphones, nor did any electronic device somehow help place them or other injured students in harm’s way.

Rather, the crash, which has hospitalized three schoolgirls with multiple fractures, appears to have been entirely attributable to the actions of the driver. Yet the principal’s letter, which DNAinfo has now reproduced in full, only mentioned students’ use of electronic devices. “Headphones, CD players, iPods or any other electronic devices used by children … can be a threat to their safety as they do not permit children to hear what is going on in their surrounding environment,” Turriciano wrote, in “asking [parents] to keep your child from using any listening devices when commuting so that they may be more in tune with their immediate surroundings.”

According to DNAinfo, the City Department of Education told Turriciano to focus on distracted walking after he “reached out to DOE asking for advice on how to address the school after the horrific crash.” That account, from the chief spokeswoman for the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, is buttressed with an email from DOE headquarters, DNAinfo reports:

In an email Sunday, a spokeswoman for the DOE said that "the initial information that the DOE received suggested that headphones could have been involved in the accident. The letter's intention was to suggest safety measures that could be communicated to students."

The mind reels at the idea that anyone learning that a driver had struck teenage girls on a city sidewalk would think to blame the girls in any way. That officials charged with educating and safeguarding the city’s one million public-school children would convey this warped perspective to traumatized students and apprehensive parents is shameful.

There are still steps I.S. 73 Principal Turriciano can take to respond to last week’s tragedy and reduce the chances of a recurrence. These include:

    • Insisting that police and prosecutors fully investigate the driver's behavior to ensure that he is held accountable for the injuries he inflicted on the I.S. 73 students;
    • Urging I.S. 73 parents to refrain from driving their children to school;
    • Proactively monitoring driver behavior near I.S. 73 to ensure that dangerous driving practices are shamed and eliminated.

Steps such as these could genuinely improve safety while arming the I.S. 73 community -- students, parents, teachers and administrators -- with the sense of purpose and agency they need to move forward from last Thursday's horrific event.

They might also spark a critical mass of outrage to compel city officials to, finally, express genuine concern over sidewalk-jumping driving incidents that are killing, maiming, and traumatizing New Yorkers. From the killing of 16-year-old Tenzin Drudak across the street from his high school in Long Island City and 3-year-old Denim McLean in East Flatbush, both in March, to the mutilating of British tourist Sian Green in Midtown last month -- all on city sidewalks -- residents and visitors alike remain at the mercy of reckless driving that the NYPD whitewashes and our mayor disregards.

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