Student Voices

‘We weren’t surprised’: Students react with a weary shrug to city’s plans to close Bronx school where boy was fatally stabbed

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

Some students at the Urban Assembly School for Wildlife Conservation in the Bronx heard the news from a superintendent, who went from classroom to classroom informing them that their school would be closed after this school year. Others learned secondhand from friends, or from letters they were told to bring home.

But if it came as a surprise that their school — which serves fewer than 500 students in grades 6 to 12 — was among 14 troubled schools that the New York City education department announced Monday it intends to shutter, the decision nonetheless made sense to many students: One of their peers had fatally stabbed one boy and seriously wounded another during history class this September. The violence shocked the city and school community, yet it did not seem totally out of place at a school where student clashes were commonplace and instability was the order of the day.

“People were happy that the school is closing because the school is not really a great school,” said Sarah Vega, a 12th-grader, during an interview Monday with four schoolmates that was arranged by the group, Teens Take Charge. “We weren’t surprised,” added Chloe Oliveras.

The school has been on the decline in recent years. Its state test scores have sunk further and further below the citywide average, with just 12 percent of students passing the English tests and 5 percent passing math last school year. (The high school’s 75 percent four-year graduation rate is on par with the city average, and 8 points above the Bronx rate.)

At the same time, it has churned through several leaders and, since last academic year, lost over 100 students — including about 45 who received department permission to transfer in the wake of the stabbing. In addition, just five students listed the school as their first choice when applying to high schools for next year.

In an email to reporters Monday, the education department’s press secretary, Toya Holness, listed steps the department had taken to stabilize the school, like boosting staff training, installing a new principal, and dispatching officials, including schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, to visit.

“Despite these additional interventions, there continues to be instability for students and staff,” Holness wrote, “and the Chancellor has determined that Wildlife students will be better served at another school.”

The school has been open since 2007, but students said a feeling of disorder began to take hold under Astrid Jacobo, who was principal from December 2015 until she was removed in October. In a survey last academic year, just 36 percent of teachers said they considered the principal an effective manager. (Jacobo did not respond to an email seeking comment.)

Meanwhile, only 55 percent of students said they felt safe in the school’s hallways and cafeteria, and just 22 percent said most students treat each other with respect. On Monday, students said fights were common, as were requests for “safety transfers” to other schools.

“It was like no discipline whatsoever,” Chloe said. Added Sarah: “I don’t feel safe in that school.”

Wildlife Conservation had started to implement “restorative justice” practices, which push students to reflect on their misbehavior and try to repair any harm they’ve caused. Part of that effort involved a “justice panel” of students who would interview their classmates about their actions, try to figure out what caused them, and come up with “sanctions,” which might include a written reflection or an apology letter to a teacher.

“Some kids take it seriously, some kids don’t,” said Sarah, who is on the panel. “Usually they don’t listen to us because obviously they’re not going to listen to someone who’s so close to their age.”

On Monday, Sarah added, the panel heard from a girl who had flown into a rage after a classmate flung a piece of paper at her; during her outburst, she threatened to throw a chair at her teacher.

The incident she described was eerily reminiscent of the one on Sept. 27, when 18-year-old Abel Cedeno reportedly snapped during history class after being pelted with bits of paper and pencils, before stabbing 15-year-old Matthew McCree to death and seriously wounding Ariane Laboy, 16. Cedeno, who has pleaded not guilty to manslaughter charges, later said that other students had taunted him with racist and homophobic slurs.

After the attack, the city sent in grief counselors and beefed up security, which included adding metal detectors. But, the students said, things still didn’t feel right.

They had to walk past the classroom where their friend was killed — the “crime scene,” as Chloe put it. Later, students objected when the administration wanted to reopen the room, so instead it was converted into an office, the students said. At one point, feeling unheard and out of sorts after the stabbing, some students held a silent sit-in in the hallway.

“Everyone was crying and throwing tantrums,” in the days after the stabbing, said Miarah Cabassa, also in 12th grade. “We all was hurt.”

In a statement, Frank Giaimo, the acting principal who replaced Jacobo, said he has focused on making sure all students and staff feel safe and welcomed at the school.

“Over the last several weeks, I’ve spent time getting to know the community and together, we will continue our work to provide students with high-quality instruction, support teachers and partner with families,” he said.

Separately, the education department has promised to work individually with students at the closing schools to ensure they are offered spots at higher-performing schools next year. (The normal high-school application period ended Dec. 1.)

Seniors who are preparing to graduate from the School for Wildlife Conservation will never get that second chance to attend a safe, orderly high school. But for some younger students like Jaidan Oliveras, a 9th-grader who learned of the city’s plans from his sister, Chloe, it felt like a reprieve.

“I was just happy because I’ll get to transfer because I don’t want to be at that school,” said Jaidan, who has attended the school since the 6th grade. “At first, I actually enjoyed it. But at the end, I started getting tired of it.”

Headlines

In smaller gun violence protests, hundreds of students walk out of NYC schools to mark Columbine anniversary

PHOTO: Drew Angerer
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 20: Student activists rally against gun violence at Washington Square Park, near the campus of New York University, April 20, 2018 in New York City. On the anniversary of the 1999 Columbine High School mass shooting, student activists across the country are participating in school walkouts to demand action on gun reform. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

From Brooklyn to the Bronx, students left their classrooms Friday to protest gun violence in demonstrations that were smaller but no less than passionate than last month’s massive walkout.

This time around, school officials weren’t giving a free pass to students for skipping school to protest — the Department of Education said there could be repercussions and Chancellor Richard Carranza urged students to stay in class because “you don’t have to be out of school all day to make your voices known. You’ve already made your voices known.”

According to the Department of Education, attendance on Friday was 89.89 percent, down just slightly from Thursday’s attendance of 91.36 percent. But that number might not account for students who briefly left school to attend protests after the school day started.

The walkout was designed to protest gun violence and planned for the 19th anniversary of the Columbine school shooting.

Many of the demonstrators gathered in Washington Square Park for a “die-in.” But other students stayed close to home, such as the School for Global Leaders on the Lower East Side. Here are some photos and videos shared on Twitter that give a sense of the walkout’s scope in New York.

#NationalSchoolWalkout

Carranza discourages student participation in Friday’s gun violence walkout — which could come with consequences

PHOTO: Courtesy photo/P.S. 261
Students at P.S. 261 in Brooklyn walked out of class in March to honor the victims of the Parkland, Fla. shooting and call for stricter gun control laws.

Last month, 100,000 students streamed out of city classrooms to protest gun violence, demonstrations condoned by the mayor and education department officials.

Similar but scaled-down protests are being planned for Friday, but with a major difference — students are more likely to face consequences for walking out of their classes this time.

For the March 14 walkout, held on the one-month anniversary of the Parkland, Florida, school shooting that killed 17, city education department officials laid out clear rules meant to facilitate student participation. Anyone who left school for the scheduled protest but returned immediately afterward would not be marked absent.

This week, students who are not in school will be marked absent, according to the education department.

At his first town hall meeting with students, Chancellor Richard Carranza implored them not to walk out of class this week.

“I supported it in March,” he said. “This one — I don’t think it’s the same thing.”

Instead, Carranza said, students should focus on having conversations about the issue inside their schools. “You don’t have to be out of school all day to make your voices known. You’ve already made your voices known.”

The department’s revised approach comes as activists planning the day of action worry that focus on gun control policy is diminishing as the Parkland shooting recedes into the past. That shooting has inspired a sustained protest movement led largely by students, but other topics have pushed it out of headlines in recent weeks.

Indeed, advocates are expecting a smaller turnout this time around, with about a dozen New York City schools registered on the national organizing page — including Bard High School Early College Queens and Stuyvesant High School.

One of the biggest demonstrations is expected to be an afternoon rally at Washington Square park, but other schools are opting for a day of action within their own buildings — and some students say they are prioritizing other ways of making a difference.

“We will be hosting a lunch and learn and creating kindness cards,” Urban Assembly School for Criminal Justice junior Robina Afzal said in an email. “We don’t feel the walkouts are most effective. Instead we can stay in school and create a change.”

PHOTO: Courtesy photo/P.S. 261
Fifth-grade students at P.S. 261 in Brooklyn are planning to walk out of school on April 20, marking the anniversary of the Columbine school shooting. They will head to borough hall and deliver letters to their local U.S. representative calling for stricter gun control laws.

At M.S. 51 in Brooklyn, students will take part in a day of assemblies where they will write letters to elected officials to demand action on issues that are important to young people.

“We want to balance our walkout and take real action that might influence policy-makers, rather than making another powerful public statement,” according to a press release sent by the middle school students there.

P.S. 261 in Brooklyn is one of the few elementary schools expected to participate on Friday. The fifth grade students have assigned themselves organizing tasks, with separate working groups dedicated to poster-making, writing original freedom songs, and even a media team. They plan to march to Borough Hall, where students will stand in a circle, sing, and chant to draw attention to young lives lost to gun violence every day across the United States.

“I think we should do it outside of the school because more people can see us walking out, because this is very important,” said Bayan Clark, a fifth-grader who is helping to organize the event. “Kids get shot every single day and it’s not just in school. It’s also outside.”

Principal Jackie Allen said such social actions are woven into the school’s teaching and learning.

When Trayvon Martin was killed in Florida, students wore black armbands in solidarity with protesters who drew attention to racial profiling and bias. When President Trump proposed an immigration ban on majority-Muslim countries, they marched around their school and created posters to signal that everyone is welcome at P.S. 261.

Ever since the Parkland shooting, students have been tackling issues around gun violence, writing letters to local elected representatives and making connections to the Black Lives Matter movement.

“We try to make sure the curriculum is relevant,” Allen said. “What’s happening in the world, it does make our way into the classrooms and kids want to talk about it.”

“We want to reflect democratic values,” she said. “We want kids to take social action and develop social awareness.”