Great Neck fire spawns questions of responsibility for child safety

Great Neck fire spawns questions of responsibility for child safety
36 Brokaw Lane was left scorched and boarded up following a fire that ousted at least 13 people from the home. (Photo by Janelle Clausen)

A Nov. 29 fire at 36 Brokaw Lane, a home approved for single-family occupancy that housed at least 13 people – eight of whom were children – spawned a litany of questions from the community, including who’s responsible for protecting children.

“The victims I want to focus on here are the children. Each adult living in that house made a decision – a decision that put their children at risk,” Amy Glass wrote in a letter to the Great Neck News. “It could have easily happened that one or more children were seriously injured, or died, as a result of that fire.”

“These children have been living, for who knows how long, without heat and without adequate bathroom facilities,” she continue. “Just the fact alone that so many children were living in one small house should have raised a red flag [to the schools].”

Teresa Prendergast, the superintendent of the Great Neck Public Schools, said via email on Tuesday it is the district’s responsibility to educate every child within its borders and that proof of residency is required upon registration.

Prendergast also noted, however, that school districts cannot get or release housing information without prior written consent from families due to a litany of state and federal laws regarding student privacy, including the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act and the Every Student Succeeds Act.

“School districts are prohibited from contacting landlords, housing agencies, or employers to give or request information about a family’s housing status without consent,” Prendergast said. “Sharing information about a student’s housing status would be in violation of these laws and would subject the district to significant legal and financial consequences.”

But these privacy laws would not conflict with state laws mandating anyone working at a school district to contact Child Protection Services if they are concerned, Prendergast said.

“Our faculty and staff care deeply about the safety of our students,” Prendergast said. “In accordance with the New York State Office of Children and Family Services, school personnel will contact CPS when there are suspicions of abuse, maltreatment or neglect.”

It’s unclear at this time if any concerns were raised in the past.

The Great Neck News previously reported that there may have been unapproved interior modifications made by the tenants, which may have allowed for more people than allowed to reside in the house in potentially dangerous conditions.

But the village was not allowed to go into the home without a search warrant to verify reports of excessive occupancy without going through “a period of observation,” Robert Barbach, superintendent of the Village of Great Neck’s Building Department, previously said, despite the property being subject to some complaints.

The fire also spawned a tidal wave of support from the community.

A GoFundMe fundraising page managed by the Great Neck United Parent-Teacher Council, or UPTC, and Parent Teacher Organizations raised more than $36,000.

This is separate from independent donations initiated by students, friends, and businesses in the area.

“I am touched by the tremendous generosity that the GNPS school community has demonstrated for the victims of this house fire, and we appreciate the efforts of the UPTC, local organizations, and individuals who have supported their neighbors as a result of this tragedy,” Prendergast said.

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