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Filler: A schoolyard battle that wasn't

The playground equipment at Dickinson Avenue Elementary School

The playground equipment at Dickinson Avenue Elementary School in East Northport. Credit: Newsday/Lane Filler

East Northport’s Dickinson Avenue Elementary School was built in the 1950s, and it shows.

The red brick structure is from the "Squat ‘n’ Durable" school of architecture, and the terrain of the campus is rough and variable, with railroad-tie stairs separating play areas.

Nothing about the school’s exterior suggests a modern sensibility toward special needs.

So after third-grader Danielle Kupersmith recovered enough from the bleeding of an abnormal tangle of blood vessels in her brain to return to Dickinson, the terrain and the playground equipment became a problem.

The brain bleeding occurred in August 2019, and paralyzed Danielle’s right side. She was in intensive care for two weeks and a rehabilitation facility for another month.

Danielle had to learn to use her limbs again, learn to be conscious of balance and obstacles.

She worked hard and made progress and her mother, pediatrician Dr. Lauren Kupersmith, says she’s "most of the way back."

But the school, for months, said Danielle was not recovered enough to risk the playground equipment, or even getting to some play areas. Instead, she stayed inside playing with one friend each day, which was not ideal.

The family asked for new equipment. They also sent a video to the school physical therapist showing Danielle ably negotiating similar challenges, and the school now allows her to use some outdoor equipment. But on days when, thanks to COVID-19 restrictions, her class plays only in areas not safe for her, she sits and watches.

This could have ended up with parents attacking the school, the school hitting back, the public taking sides and the issue blowing a Facebook parents group into smithereens.

But this isn’t that.

Danielle’s mom says Principal Laurie Storch and her staff have been kind and responsive, even if they couldn’t do all that was asked.

And Storch gushes about Danielle ("A spitfire who will change the world!") and the family’s dedication to school and community.

The family started a Change.org petition calling for the district to provide accessible playground equipment for all children. They are brainstorming fundraising. And Danielle wrote a letter to Storch featuring two perfect insights on modern life: "If the person with disabilities is watching a person on the purple spinning thing they might feel sad," and "Getting a break is really important and if you don’t you might be grumpy all day."

Meanwhile, the debate over this one aging school’s playgrounds will probably become academic, because the school board will likely vote to close it at its meeting Thursday night as part of a district consolidation.

It’s agonizing for a parent to see a child battered by illness, hampered by recovery and left out by circumstance. It’s torturous for a principal to make decisions about safety and equipment, juggling the conflicting needs of 400 kids and a budget.

This is a story about arguments that never happened and insults that were never hurled, about parties in conflict treating each other with respect and kindness, and an understanding of the obstacles both face.

And it’s a story worth telling.

Lane Filler is a member of Newsday's editorial board.

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