Disabled students’ tribute to 9/11 stolen after a day

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The students at Little Neck’s PS 811, who range from mildly to severely disabled, are no strangers to challenge, but the loss of their gift to mark the first anniversary of Sept. 11 was enough to break anyone’s spirit.

A year after the World Trade Center attacks, school staff joined with the students for a special assembly and tree planting ceremony meant to create a spirit of unity within the school, Principal Joan Washington said.

After the assembly on Sept. 11, about 25 students — some in wheelchairs, some using arm braces to walk — helped plant a blue spruce surrounded by tiny American flags in the front of the Marathon Parkway school. The tree was even more special, Washington said, because students decided to use class funds that ordinarily would go to activities such as a class pizza party to purchase the plant.

By the next day, the tree had been stolen, leaving a large hole in the ground and a stunned staff inside the school, which draws students from across Queens.

“They put their heart and soul into planting this tree and it was gone,” Washington said. “It was there for less than 24 hours.

“It took us really by surprise,” she said. “We put it front and center so people could enjoy it.”

Washington said custodians discovered a trail of dirt from the hole going along the heavily traveled Marathon Parkway.

Teacher Risa Serota, whose class participated in the assembly and planted the tree, said she was so angry the tree was stolen she could not tell her class right away.

“I think the worst part was having to tell the students,” she said. “I talked to them about the whole idea of trust and the idea that you can’t trust everybody.

“When I told them what happened, their jaws dropped,” she said.

The theft dampened the positive feelings created by the special Sept. 11 assembly, music teacher Barbara Tetenbaum said.

“These kids had an experience from the day of giving,” said Tetenbaum, who helped organize a special concert to go along with student poetry readings and a multimedia presentation.

Serota said the theft was “almost like a violation.”

Washington said that although the students in her school deal with a range of disabilities, all were touched by the terrorist attacks.

“Our children are very tuned in to the senses and body language,” she said. “They feel and communicate in ways other than verbal. They sensed the fear and the grief around them.”

Though angered by the loss of the ceremonial tree, Washington said the educators have used the theft to teach students some life lessons.

“Life is not always just,” she said. “The children really connected with it.”

While PS 811 custodian Ralph DeJohn offered to replace the tree, the principal said the hole in the ground was left as a reminder that not all wounds heal quickly.

“The healing process is a part of it,” she said.

Reach reporter Kathianne Boniello by e-mail at or call 229-0300, Ext. 157.

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