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New fire codes dampen classroom decor

Down with the paper caterpillars, the student essays, and the welcome-back signs framed with photographs. Down with the cardboard alphabet letters and the canvas mail holder with a slot for each new student. Just hours after teachers and staffers at Samuel W. Mason Elementary School in Boston decorated classrooms and hallways in preparation for the return of pupils yesterday, fire inspectors ordered most of the displays taken down.

Because of new fire codes issued by the state fire marshal this summer, inspectors in Boston and elsewhere across the state are cracking down on that most familiar of schoolhouse customs: the hanging of paper artwork on the walls. The crackdown is setting up a collision between childhood expression and strict safety regulations, and is redefining the look of schools.

"I think it's absolutely ridiculous," said Gisela Sasturain, a fourth- and fifth-grade teacher at William E. Russell Elementary School in Boston, who tapes writing samples and rules on her walls. "How are the kids going to see things? How are they going to learn?"

Some districts have been fireproofing displays all summer in preparation, covering bulletin boards with nonflammable paint instead of crepe paper, and enclosing hallway postings in glass viewing cases. Others, like Boston, are hoping to get a reprieve from the code.

Boston officials planned to meet with the city's assistant fire marshal today to try to work out a compromise. They say the artistic displays are essential to learning, and enclosing them in glass or fireproofing them would be too expensive. A quart of nontoxic fire-retardent spray can cost as much as $20.

"We just want to find a balance, a balance between fire safety and academics," said Bill Murray, fire safety and emergency management director for Boston schools.

The revised codes allow untreated wall displays to cover 20 percent of the space in a classroom without sprinklers or 30 percent of space in a sprinklered classroom. The percent is calculated on the room's square footage. The displays are forbidden in hallways, gyms, and cafeterias. Local fire departments will make inspections every three months. Violations are punishable by penalties of between $100 and $1,000.

"We're in a kind of tough position," Boston Assistant Fire Marshal Paul Burke said. "You know, schools are schools. They plaster [artwork on] walls everywhere, and it becomes a problem. Some of our biggest battles are with principals over this."

The new regulations, which took effect in July, are actually looser than the old ones, which banned all displays throughout the school that featured untreated paper and other flammable materials. But those were seldom enforced. After numerous local fire departments asked the state for more realistic, enforceable codes, the state Board of Fire Prevention Regulations began studying the problem three years ago.

The board passed the amended fire codes this year, three months after The Station nightclub fire in Rhode Island, in which 100 people died. Foam on the club's walls accelerated the fire. Officials at the state fire marshal's office, which has a seat on the state board, insist there was no connection between the two, though they acknowledge the Rhode Island fire heightened sensitivity to fire safety issues. They say the primary concern about untreated paper hanging unattended in schoolrooms is that it can be tempting to students looking to set fires.

"What [fire officials] are afraid of is kids lighting it on fire," said Burke, the Boston assistant fire marshal. "It's lousy that everyone has to suffer because of a few."

There were more than 200 fires in Massachusetts schools in 2000, causing 24 injuries and at least $1 million in damage, according to the state fire marshal's office. Fire Marshal Stephen D. Coan estimates that at least half of those were intentionally set, many of them by juveniles.

"This is a well thought out regulation," Coan said. "This is not an attempt to create a sterile environment in the schools. Excessive decorations on walls can, and, it is proven, do, create unsafe conditions." While Boston negotiates with fire officials, some districts are taking steps to comply. In Franklin, teacher Ken Wood used to staple red, white and blue paper to the bulletin boards in his fifth-grade classroom. Now, he uses nonflammable paint, and 19 years' worth of class trip photos that were once stapled on the walls are instead individually framed.

In Attleboro, school officials plan to use nonflammable materials such as tin foil in their displays. "We're just getting more creative," said Superintendent Joel Lovering. "It's a different type of thinking. Where students' artwork was hung on the walls, we'll probably have portfolios so the student work will still be displayed."

Some educators in Boston, however, say there is no substitute for wall displays. Having images on display makes an impression on the students, said Sasturain, who has been teaching for 26 years. "Maybe they don't look at it every day, but they see it eventually," she said, pointing to a paper chart on her blackboard that she drew showing summer vacation experiences. She is using the chart to help students learn how to organize ideas when writing stories. "They make connections over time."

For now, schools in Boston have been told to keep up their displays until after today's meeting with Burke. But the paper caterpillars and cardboard pumpkins may still be on their way down. The fire department is warning that compromise on the new code may not be an option.

"We expect them to enfore it," Burke said. "The principals will have to understand. That's how they're going to have to operate."

Donovan Slack can be reached at dslack@globe.com

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