Wheeling High School, fire department clash over homecoming decorations

  • Wheeling High School decorations on the homecoming theme, "Destination Paradise."

    Wheeling High School decorations on the homecoming theme, "Destination Paradise." Courtesy of Wheeling HIgh School

Updated 10/5/2011 3:06 PM

A spat between the Wheeling High School student council and the Wheeling Fire Department over potentially unsafe homecoming decorations came before the Wheeling village board this week.

On Sept. 26, after students spent the weekend decorating the school for the following week's homecoming celebration, Fire Chief Keith MacIsaac came to Wheeling High School for the coronation assembly. As he walked through the school foyer, he saw some decorations on the ceiling -- too close, he thought, to the hot lights.


Members of the student council insisted the decorations were fire retardant. MacIsaac, however, took a bit of the gossamer paper, went outside and successfully set it on fire.

He then asked the school administration to have the decorations taken off the ceiling, which they did.

On Oct. 3, more than 10 student council members and adviser Sandra Chico came to the Wheeling Village Board meeting to complain about how the situation was handled and ask the board to review it.

"To Student Council it's much more than decorations," Chico said, referring to school tradition.

Chico said the council spent extra money to buy what they thought were fire retardant gossamer decorations for the ceiling.

"This may be perceived as no consequence to outsiders," Chico said. "But, they were psychologically and emotionally devastated."

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The students and Chico left the meeting generally dissatisfied. All the students came prepared to speak, but after two speakers Village President Judy Abruscato asked if they all planned to say basically the same thing, and halted the recital. Village Manager Jon Sfondilis said several times that a village board meeting was not the proper place for this discussion.

The group walked out of the meeting, unsatisfied with the board's response.

Meanwhile, the village board stood behind MacIsaac's decision to put student safety above other considerations.

"I can understand the frustrations of the young people," said Trustee Kenneth Brady. But he said he will never forget the Dec. 1, 1958 fire at Our Lady of the Angels in Chicago, which killed 92 students and three nuns.

Sfondilis said the village spoke with school administrators, who were not present at Monday night's meeting, and that they seemed fine with MacIsaac's decision.


Wheeling High School Principal Lazaro Lopez said Tuesday that authorities had to err on the side of caution and safety.

"But for the students it's an emotional issue because they've spent so much time on it," Lopez said. He thought the foyer still looked nice for the homecoming dance and said they might include fire officials in future planning to make sure the decorations meet standards.

"Certainly the village has no intent of ruining homecoming, or has any other agenda other than protecting the safety of the students of Wheeling High School," he said.

MacIsaac said he later investigated the brand of decorations the students bought, and said they were not fire retardant, nor did the manufacturer advertise them as such. In fact, he said, they came with a warning to consult with the local fire department before use.

"I feel I have been slandered here this evening," MacIsaac said of the comments made by the teacher and students. "It's implied that myself or my staff have been negligent. I saw what I thought was a problem, verified that it was a problem and I acted."