What should N.J. students born after 9/11 be taught about the terror attacks?

What should N.J. students born after 9/11 be taught about the terror attacks?

The images have long been seared into our consciousness.

Memorials to the dead have been erected. Stories have been told and retold of fathers and mothers who went to work that morning and never came home. Of the final, tragic moments of so many lost souls. Of heroes who must never be forgotten.

For those of who were alive when the terror attacks occurred, a defining moment for the nation is etched into memory. But for generations who never lived through the fraught days of 9/11, the terror attacks are now part of the country’s history, an event that happened long before they were born.

Now, more than two decades after 19 militant Islamist extremists hijacked four airliners and targeted New York City and the nation’s capital, killing nearly 3,000 people, legislators in New Jersey are seeking to make the events of 9/11 required teaching in the state’s schools.

The bill, S-713, would mandate school districts to teach about the events of September 11, 2001, in the curriculum of all elementary, middle, and high school students. It would also require each public school to organize an annual commemoration of 9/11.

“If you think back to when it happened, we all said we would never forget and we should never forget — ever,” said state Sen. Richard Codey, D-Essex, one of the sponsors of the measure.

Despite passing unanimously this past March in the Senate, the bill until this past week seemed to face an uncertain future in the Assembly — where a companion bill sponsored by two freshmen Republicans in the Democratic-controlled chamber, A-3877, sat bottled up in the Education Committee for months.

Or so it appeared.

But after questioned why the legislation had been sidelined for so long, a spokeswoman for Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin said on Thursday that the Senate bill was in fact currently under review and that “the Assembly will ensure that school districts be required to teach the events leading up and following the September 11 terrorist attacks.”


A study last year by Pew Research Center found that an overwhelming share of Americans know where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news.

“For most who are old enough to remember, it is a day that is impossible to forget,” the study said.

However, it said an ever-growing number of Americans have no personal memory of that day, either because they were too young or not yet born.

Mourners pause at the North Reflecting Pool as flowers are placed in the names of the dead at the National September 11 Memorial and Museum in New York.AP

The bill under consideration by the New Jersey Legislature would mandate school districts to teach about the events of September 11, 2001 in the curriculum of all elementary, middle, and high school students. Schools would need to teach the historical context of the attacks, provide a timeline of the day as the events unfolded, and detail the actions of the police, firefighters, paramedics, and other first responders in the rescue and recovery of the victims.

Codey said he can still remember being told stories about World War II when he was young.

“That stayed with me forever,” he said. “Kids should understand what that day meant, not only for the state, but for the whole country. We should never forget who we may have lost that day. It’s important for them to be remembered as heroes.”

Some New Jersey school districts already spend class time studying the events of 9/11, but what is taught varies district by district.

The state Department of Education does mandate some discussion of the attacks in social studies study in the higher grades. Those standards include how the attacks contributed to the debate over national security and civil liberties, as well as their impact on the decisions to wage war in Iraq and Afghanistan, but not to the extent proposed by the pending legislation.

Although not formally included in the district’s curriculum, Emerson Schools Superintendent Brian P. Gatens said the terror attacks and their aftermath are typically discussed in social studies classes.

“It’s not every teacher, every grade level, every classroom — but where it’s appropriate, where it fits in,” he explained.

Those lessons also talk about the national unity in the aftermath of the terrorist attack, which the Pew report on the 20th anniversary of 9/11 said transformed U.S. public opinion.

“It is difficult to think of an event that so profoundly transformed U.S. public opinion across so many dimensions as the 9/11 attacks. While Americans had a shared sense of anguish after Sept. 11, the months that followed also were marked by rare spirit of public unity,” the report said, although it said many of those impacts were short lived.


A daily reminder of what happened that day can be seen in a glass case at Emerson’s high school, just outside the library, where a piece of steel from the debris of the fallen World Trade Center is on display.

A K-12 district, the Bergen County community is only about a 20-mile drive from where the Twin Towers once stood. Nearly 150 county residents perished in the attacks, including Gary Albero of Emerson.

“We definitely want our teachers to think of that day,” said Gatens.

Still, he also acknowledged that it is a day that recedes deeper into the past with each new class entering the school system.

“We don’t have a single student in the district that was even close to being born when 9/11 happened,” Gatens said.

In Paterson, the city’s school district also does not have a formal 9/11 curriculum, but like Emerson provides a variety of “age-appropriate resources and lesson plan suggestions to teachers” to help educate students, according to Paul Brubaker, the school district’s spokesman.

“For students in kindergarten through the second grade, lessons focus on the heroism shown by many on 9/11 and give students opportunities to define heroism for themselves by identifying the everyday heroes in their lives,” he said.

Students from third grade through eighth grade are taught not only about the events of 9/11, but study how the day impacted people’s sense of safety. And high school students delve into more sophisticated concepts such as terrorism and counterterrorism and the question of how to balance national security with protecting individuals’ civil liberties, Brubaker explained.

Jack Simon, left, sophomore, plants flags while Alan Leon, sophomore, drills holes for the flags as part of Cedar Grove’s 9/11 Memorial Flag Installation on Friday. Julian Leshay | For NJ Advance M

Colleen Tambuscio was a witness to what happened on 9/11. She was then working with an education foundation in Manhattan and could see the disaster unfolding as she exited the PATH train station at 33rd Street. She spent the night in the city with a friend because there was no way for her to return home to New Jersey.

Today she is a teacher at New Milford High School and helped write a sample 9/11 curriculum several years ago, which she developed with the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education in conjunction with the National September 11 Memorial & Museum.

“I like to focus on the personal narratives, of either the survivors or the family members who lost victims. I feel that’s what students really latch onto, the personal stories that are connected to the history,” she said.

At the School District of the Chathams, where several children lost parents on 9/11, the date is observed and lessons are also being taught about the attacks, said Superintendent Michael LaSusa said

Steve Maher, the district’s supervisor of social studies, said last year’s 20th anniversary was marked with age-appropriate lessons for students in elementary school through high school.

Younger students read “14 Cows for America,” a 2008 book by Carmen Agra Deedy, the true story of a Stanford University student Kimeli Naiyomah who had witnessed the catastrophic events while visiting the United Nations headquarters in New York and traveled back home to his remote village in Western Kenya to tell a story that had “burned a hole in his heart.” They reacted by by presenting the United States with the most solemn gift the Maasai people could give — a herd of cows.

Those in grades 4 through 6 discussed how nearly 7,000 airline passengers diverted following the attacks were welcomed in the Newfoundland town of Gander. And high school students focused on the Flight 93 Memorial in Shanksville, Pa., and discussed how it captures the anger and fear from that day while celebrating the bravery of ordinary Americans.

WTC 9/11 September 11th terror attack World Trade Center Towers

FDNY firefighters search the wreckage of the towers on Sept. 11, 2001.Aristide Economopoulos / The Star-Ledger

This year, a firefighter who served as the World Trade Center site will be discussing his experiences with 8th graders and high school students, according to Maher.

“His perspective highlights the way the attack made differences among people disappear as everyone in the area united in their efforts to rescue victims and comfort their families. His recollection of the way people came together at that time, might be a good message for students to hear today,” Maher said.


John Farmer, Jr., who was New Jersey’s attorney general on Sept. 11, 2001, and later served as senior counsel to the 9/11 Commission, said he was not a huge fan of legislatively mandated curricula. At the same time, though, he could not imagine a course in American history that would leave out the events of 9/11.

“The equivalent would have been leaving out Pearl Harbor when I was young,” he said.

Now a Rutgers University law professor and the director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers, Farmer said one of the startling moments at the beginning of each school year is the realization that many college and law students weren’t born yet on 9/11, and he faces similar issues of defining events becoming lost in time each semester.

“Early in my teaching career I remember telling the class that in many respects Iran-Contra was worse than Watergate” and seeing blank expressions everywhere!” he said of the two major political scandals of the ‘70s and ‘80s that took down one president and badly tarnished another.

The 1972 break-in of the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Washington, D.C., Watergate Office Building led to a coverup and obstruction charges that saw the resignation of President Richard Nixon. The secret U.S. arms deal that became known as the Iran-Contra Affair was a covert operation under the administration of President Ronald Reagan that involved the illegal trade of missiles and other weapons in an attempt to free Americans being held hostage.

Farmer said communicating the urgency of 9/11 is an enormous teaching challenge.

“But grasping just how uncertain and threatened the public felt is essential to explaining many of the rules that our young people now take for granted,” he said.


Assemblywoman Marilyn Piperno, R-Monmouth, one of the two sponsors in the lower house that would mandate a 9/11 curriculum in New Jersey, said they had been told nothing by the Democratic leadership about why the bill was just sitting.

“It’s teaching children about a significant time in our history,” she said. “My own children are aware to some degree there was a 9/11, but there is no emotional attachment. They don’t understand the ripple effect it had.”

Assemblywoman Kim Eulner, R-Monmouth, the other sponsor, said it’s important for students to learn more about the terror attacks. “When I grew up, we learned about Pearl Harbor. It’s important that people know what happened on that horrible day,” she said.

Both said they remain bewildered over why the proposed legislation would lead to any political pushback whatsoever.

“We’re in the minority party,” said Eulner. “Maybe they don’t feel it’s important enough, or maybe they see our names. Based on the experiences we’ve had, I feel fairly confident that many things are impacted by political bias and power.”

Seton Hall political scientist Matthew Hale, though, said there could be all kinds of “inside baseball reasons” why the bill had been sidelined for so long.

“The freshman legislators might have not gone through their leadership. Or maybe they are looking for more co-sponsors,” Hale speculated. “Or maybe it is that first term members of the minority party are as low as it gets on the ‘to do list.’”

Still, he said it was tough to believe that any legislator would want to officially go on record opposing 9/11 education and remembrance.

“The campaign commercial pointing that out almost writes itself,” he remarked.

And in fact, more than five months after the bill disappeared into committee, the Assembly speaker — responding to questions about its fate and the issue of its sponsorship — now says the proposed legislation is very much alive.

“The speaker has a demonstrated history of working across the aisle, evidenced most recently by a bi-partisan package reforming state election processes,” said Cecilia Williams, a spokeswoman for Craig Coughlin. “Keeping alive the memory of those tragically killed on September 11, 2001, and those impacted in its aftermath should be taught in all schools throughout the state.”

Friday’s 9/11 Memorial Flag Installation on at Cedar Grove High School, marking the 21st anniversary of the terror attacks.Julian Leshay | For NJ Advance M


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Ted Sherman may be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @TedShermanSL.

Rob Jennings may be reached at [email protected].

This News is Published from Google Alert – 9/11.

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