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Justice Dept. Looks At Mistreatment Of Disabled Students During New Rochelle H.S. Evacuation

Jennifer Feltenstein

Jennifer Feltenstein is one of two students who was left behind during a fire evacuation at New Rochelle High School. (Credit: CBS 2)

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NEW ROCHELLE, N.Y. (CBSNewYork) - New Rochelle High School in Westchester County was under federal investigation Tuesday, for allegedly stranding two disabled students during a fire emergency.

As CBS 2’s Lou Young reported, there was a fire, specifically burning wires, near the school on January 31. When the fire bell rang, most students headed for the exits — except for two disabled students in wheelchairs.

They were kept on the third floor.

“They left my son behind,” said Jose Martinez, a parent at the school.

Also left behind was senior Jennifer Feltenstein, who has cerebral palsy.

“How do you feel when you’re on the third floor?” asked WCBS 880 reporter Sean Adams.

“Anxious,” she said.

“Nervous?” Adams asked.

“Yeah,” she said, adding that in an emergency, she would feel much more comfortable downstairs.

Now, the U.S. Department of Justice is investigating why the two students were kept inside the building during the evacuation, in a potential violation of federal law.

“To me, it’s not fair to be disabled and have to be left behind,” Feltenstein said.

“She sat there and watched the other kids leave,” added her father, Rich Feltenstein. “They all left.”

Sprawling New Rochelle High School has exits on the first and second floor, but not the third floor where the students were stuck. And the elevators were shut down.

Sources told CBS 2 news the school had purchased evacuation chairs for just such an eventuality, but found out the day of the fire that they had not been unpacked and no one had been trained to use them.

Jennifer Feltenstein said she was stuck near the locker area in a hallway.

The school district initially said the students had been taken to a “safe room” during the evacuation, but on Tuesday declined to comment, citing the federal investigation. Parents complained the school has been playing fast and loose with the facts.

“The afe room was not safe. It was inaccessible,” Rich Feltenstein said. “They stood outside the safe room.”

Martinez was likewise furious at the school’s failure to evacuate the students.

“If you’re a school district and you’re saying say that you’re capable of handling students with special needs, this is what you need to be able to do,” he said.

“Just evacuate everybody,” Jennifer Feltenstein said, “because you don’t know what the situation is going to be.”

Neither of the students was left alone during the evacuation, but a source close to the case said that means staff members, as well as the teens, may have been left in danger as the fire department checked for dangerous carbon monoxide levels.

The Justice Department contacted the affected families and has launched a formal inquiry to see if the Americans with Disabilities Act was violated.

The fire on Jan. 31 was extinguished by the New Rochelle Fire Department. The chief told CBS 2 Tuesday that he has been ordered not to talk about the incident because of the federal investigation.

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