As Sandy roared into the metropolitan area on Oct. 29, hundreds of law students in the region were forced to put aside strict study schedules.
With power gone and classes suspended, administrators at the schools concentrated on keeping their students safe, fed and informed.
At New York University School of Law, students gathered in common areas and hallways powered by backup generators, sharing charging devices and attempting to contact loved ones despite spotty Internet service and cell phone reception.
Students in one dormitory who still had hot water invited others to use their showers. For a week, the university provided free meals for students.
“We were all shocked by what it felt like to not have the amenities that we all take for granted,” said Lance Polivy, president of the NYU Law Student Bar Association.
Schools closed for several days, reminiscent of the period following the 9/11 terror attacks. For many students, that meant up to a week without access to professors, classmates, externships or campus libraries.
But problems with transportation and housing have lingered long after the flood waters have dried. All the schools report cases of students who have lost homes, cars and class notes. That’s on top of the normal stresses of midterms, said Cheryl Howard, assistant dean for student affairs at City University of New York School of Law.
“Law school is very unforgiving,” she said. “But classes must go on.”
Moreover, the schools must make up for time lost if they are to meet the mandates of accrediting agencies for a minimum amount of yearly class time.
Many schools have modified class schedules. The Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, for example, is extending all classes by 20 minutes, while St. John’s University School of Law will hold makeup classes on some weekends.
“This way we don’t have to change final exam schedules,” said Andrew Simons, vice dean emeritus at St. John’s Law.
To assist those with difficult or impossible commutes, 11 law schools in the metropolitan area have opened their doors to students and faculty from other schools who can’t make it to their home schools to work and study. The ad hoc coalition includes Cardozo, Brooklyn Law School, Columbia Law School, CUNY, Fordham University School of Law, Hofstra University School of Law, New York Law School, NYU, Pace Law School, St. John’s and Touro Law Center.
The coalition came together after a conference call of deans organized by Anthony Crowell, the dean of New York Law School.
“We discussed different approaches we were each taking to make up classes for the remainder of the law school calendar,” Crowell said.
New York Law and some other schools are now video- or audio-recording all classes and posting them online for students who couldn’t come in. New York Law recorded 281 classes in one week, which have been viewed 1120 times, an “unprecedented” effort, Crowell said.
Professors who can’t reach their home campuses also may tape lectures remotely using partner schools’ facilities.
Meanwhile, schools with large numbers of commuters, like Hofstra and Touro, have organized carpools for employees and students struggling with gas shortages.
Weathering the Storm
The storm posed major campus-wide communication issues. In the absence of electricity, phone reception and wireless Internet service, schools had to find other ways to keep students informed.
Cardozo sent out campus-wide emails and continuously updated its website to let students know of class cancellations. But because many students had no way to receive those notifications, it also sent campus workers to knock on residence hall doors and put up flyers in common areas.
“Sometimes the old-fashioned way of communicating is the best thing to do,” said Cardozo dean Matthew Diller.
A lot of New York Law students went home before or after the storm hit. The school relocated 10 students from its dark, frigid dormitory to NYU, where they slept on cots for two days, said Crowell.
“It’s nice they were able to have heat and light” in areas at NYU powered by a generator, he said.
CUNY Law also reached out to students whose homes had been damaged via their classmates and friends.
“We asked our students, ‘Have you heard from so-and-so in your class?’” said Howard, the CUNY law school administrator. “Professors were picking out who was missing so we could track them down.”
Now CUNY is providing financial and logistical help to eight students whose homes were damaged or destroyed during the storm. Touro said around 20 of its students lost their homes, while Brooklyn reported another 10.
“Some students lost all the work they’ve done this semester,” said Beryl Jones-Woodin, Brooklyn’s dean for student affairs. “We’re working to replace textbooks and class notes. We’ve set up an exchange so people who need things can match up with people who have those things.”
“We’re trying to get people whole as soon as possible,” she added.
Having survived the storm, students and faculty at several schools organized bake sales, clothing drives and food drives to gather items for those in need in the larger community. Many used their unexpected free time to volunteer for clean-up efforts in storm-damaged neighborhoods.
“The whole experience of the storm really galvanized the community to work together and really support each other,” said Arthur Fama, assistant dean of student affairs at NYU Law. “It brought out the good spirit of the students, the faculty and the administration.”
Touro opened a pro bono legal help center just days after the storm to provide assistance and legal advice for Long Island residents and small businesses affected by Sandy. Its hotline, which is staffed by volunteer lawyers and law students, received 100 calls in its first three days.
Callers sought advice on FEMA applications, unemployment issues, lawyer referrals and landlord-tenant issues, said Patricia Salkin, Touro’s dean.
Brooklyn Law and St. John’s Law have each organized hurricane relief committees to raise money for storm victims or to train their students in storm-related legal issues. All the schools are seeking pro bono opportunities for their students to work with bar groups and legal services groups in providing disaster assistance.
“People pull together in times of crisis,” said Diller, Cardozo’s dean. “We took care of our own and now we’re reaching out to help the greater community.”
Meanwhile, New York Law has taken in five or six students at its dormitory who have been displaced from their homes.
“We gave them a shelter so they wouldn’t lose the opportunity to get their studies done, and to get them back on their feet,” Crowell said.
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