On October 29th, 2008, a Latino student in evident pain was brought to the nurse’s office by a fellow seventh grader at Isaac E. Young Middle School in New Rochelle, NY. “Joseph” (not his real name) told the school nurse, Carla Murphy, he had been playing outside during recess, slipped on the wet grass and fell with his arms outstretched onto a concrete surface. He told Nurse Murphy that “both arms hurt” and - indicating his wrists and forearms - that he was in extreme pain. Nurse Murphy, interrupted from eating her lunch, handed the boy a bag of ice and called the boy’s mother to come pick him up from school. The mother, Maritza Rodriguez, asked the nurse to call for an ambulance. Murphy refused and hung up the phone on the mother. More than six hours later, an emergency room doctor told Rodriguez, that both her son’s arms were severely fractured between the wrists and the elbows. Joseph was absent from school for more than two months and only recently returned.
According to the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, each year emergency departments in the United States treat more than 200,000 children ages 14 and younger for playground-related injuries. About 45% of playground-related injuries are severe—fractures, internal injuries, concussions, dislocations, and amputations. About 75% of nonfatal injuries related to playground equipment occur on public playgrounds. Most occur at schools and daycare centers. Between 1990 and 2000, 147 children ages 14 and younger died from playground-related injuries. Of them, 82 (56%) died from strangulation and 31 (20%) died from falls to the playground surface.
Given that nearly half of playground injuries are severe, one might expect that a student who appears with an unknown playground injury complaining that both his arms hurt might get more medical attention than a bag of ice and a phone call home.
For those not familiar with the various machinations of the men and women who control the New Rochelle school district, Mrs. Rodriguez's story provides an instructive glimpse into the mindset of local school officials and how their actual dealing with parents contrast with their showy public assertions of welcoming parents into the schools and celebrating diversity. As the Rodriguez family has learned the hard way, everything is copacetic up until the point where a parent asks for something the District doesn't want to give. Then, all of a sudden, the parent is labeled a "problem parent" and doors are quite literally slammed in their face. What she is now finding out is something many other parents have discovered - the district treats parents not as "stakeholders" or "constituents" or "customers" but rather as potential litigants. Her story also highlights what families of color – the Isaac E. Young Middle School student body is 70% “minority” students – can expect from school officials who claim to celebrate diversity but, in fact, treat minority students, especially those from the South End, and most especially those with parents who do not speak English, as a nuisance – or worse. Ironically, although the mother does not speak much English both she and her husband are legal residents, having come to the United States 20 years ago, and their children are U.S. citizens which just goes to show that even born-and-raised American children are treated like second-class citizens if their mom does not speak English.
Joseph comes from a family that has experienced its share of political turmoil and repression. His parents each emigrated separately from South America and came to the United States in the late 1980’s. They became legal residents in the United States, met, married and had two children both born here and therefore U.S. citizens. While Mr. Rodriquez is a fluent English speaker, Mrs. Rodriquez has only acquired a rudimentary facility with English and is not comfortable understanding or making herself understood in any language other than Spanish. Compounding this, her past experience with corrupt and violent authorities in her home country makes her extremely reluctant to deal with any kind of authorities in the United States.
Upon arriving at the school, Mrs. Rodriguez pleaded with the school nurse to call an ambulance to take her badly injured child to the hospital. Her requests were met with an icy indifference bordering on depravity. In a Kafkaesque moment, Rodriguez alleges that Nurse Murphy, a mandated reporter under New York State law, threatened that if Rodriguez did not leave immediately, she would "call CPS" [Child Protective Services], a threat Rodriguez understood to mean that Murphy would file a complaint with CPS alleging that the mother was not giving her child proper medical treatment. Frustrated but unwilling to accept "no" for an answer, Mrs. Rodriguez left the nurse's office with her son and went looking for the school principal, Anthony Bongo.
Talk of the Sound readers will recognize the name Anthony Bongo as the serial violator of the New York State Clean Indoor Act currently the subject of a complaint recently referred by the New York State Health Department to the local Westchester County Health Department for review, the person who sought to use the police to intimidate the operator of this web site, the person who claims to have increased minority performance on state math tests in just two years by a whopping 50% after decades of stagnant performance – all without school district employees changing answers or otherwise cheating, and, of course, as the man in charge of the school during the infamous “noose incident” which is now wending it’s way through the court system courtesy of the NAACP, a case the District will almost certainly lose or be forced to settle for far more than the cost of a stuffed animal and a piece of rope. In that case, Mr. Bongo is alleged to have taken no action when a black employee complained that a white supervisor had hung a stuffed monkey with a noose in his office; emboldened, the white supervisor reportedly hung a total of three stuffed animals. All this about the time the Jena 6 incident was making headlines across the country. The District only took disciplinary action (a mild suspension) after the NAACP took on the case.
In response to Mrs. Rodriguez's pleas for help, Mr. Bongo’s secretary stated that Mr. Bongo, standing just a few feet away, was “unavailable”. Joseph lifted one of his broken arms and pointed out Mr. Bongo to his mother. Mrs. Rodriquez approached Mr. Bongo for help. Clearly annoyed at having been involved in the matter, Bongo shouted past the mother to his secretary, demanding she find Mr. Martinez, the school dean and a Spanish speaker, to "deal with" Mrs. Rodriguez.
Sources familiar with the school say her account is entirely consistent with common practice at the school. Despite public claims that the school welcomes parents, school secretaries are instructed by Mr. Bongo to run interference for him by blocking parents with complaints from reaching him. In some situations. Parents in the building are often redirected to other administrators in the building, those who call on the phone are typically transferred to telephones in empty offices (the school district does not have a voice mail system so the phones ring until the parent gives up).
Told by his secretary that Mr. Martinez was unavailable, and unable to get rid of Rodriguez, Mr. Bongo asked a custodial worker to serve as translator. With a janitor serving as interpreter, Bongo told Rodriguez that he would not call an ambulance because it was school policy not to call an ambulance unless a child was “bleeding or on the floor”. He explained to her that since Joseph could walk the injuries were not serious and therefore an ambulance was not necessary. When Mrs. Rodriguez continued to insist that the school call an ambulance, Mr. Bongo gave her a note which he said would give her priority at he hospital. Not knowing any better, she accepted the note and left the building with her son. Knowledgeable sources say this sort of thing is common practice – do whatever is necessary to get a complaining parent out of the school building. The note, of course, was meaningless. Joseph and his mother sat in the waiting room outside the ER at Sound Shore Medical for over four hours before being seen by a doctor. X-rays later confirmed that both arms were severely fractured.
Asked why she did not call 911 herself, the mother stated that she was nervous as well as confused. Murphy and Bongo were telling her that her son was not seriously injured and intimated that calling an ambulance for a minor injury was not permitted or would somehow get her in trouble. She added that knowing what she knows now she would have called.
According to Mrs. Rodriguez and her son, at no point did Nurse Murphy take Joseph’s complaints of pain seriously. No one contacted the family to check on the boy's condition.
The following day, Mrs. Rodriguez called to inform the school that her son had two broken arms and was unable to return to school. Rodriguez reports that shortly thereafter a “barrage” of phone calls from the school ensued - mostly demanding to know the name of Joseph’s doctor. It was through the many phone calls that Mrs. Rodriguez says she came to understand that Richard Organisciak, the Superintendent of the City Schools District of New Rochelle, was made aware of the incident. Likewise, that Cindy Babcock-Deutsch, President of the Board of Education and Dr. Adrienne Weiss-Harrison, the district’s Medical Director were also made aware of the situation. She was unable to recall who specifically told her this or what exactly they were made aware of, only that they knew about the situation. Rodriguez says that to the best of her knowledge, no action has been taken to investigate her complaints or address her concerns and no corrective action has been taken against any district employee.
Sources familiar with the City School District of New Rochelle say this is a familiar pattern - especially when it comes to dealing with persons of color, immigrants or those who do not speak English well or at all. The District believes, these same sources say, that any acknowledgement of wrongdoing will reflect poorly on the image of the City School District of New Rochelle, create tension with the unions and possibly open the District up to a lawsuit. As a result, the District’s default position is to assume the family will litigate and respond accordingly. This would explain Mrs. Rodriguez' sense that she is being made to feel that she has done something wrong by complaining to school officials about the way she and her son were treated.
In an unfortunate twist to the story, Joseph’s older brother, an 8th grade student at Isaac E. Young Middle School, fell in the school gymnasium just three weeks later. “Mark” (also not his real name) was taken to the nurse. As was the case with Joseph, the mother was called and told very little, only that Mark had fallen. This time, however, the school took the highly unusual step of offering to drive Mark home. Mrs. Rodriguez asked that he be driven to the hospital but the school refused and he was driven to his own house instead. Unwilling to leave Joseph home alone with two broken arms and under instructions from doctors to avoid having him move about, Rodriguez did not take Mark to the hospital until after her husband who works at night returned home the following morning. By then, Mark’s elbow had swelled and he was experiencing intense pain. An emergency room doctor told the mother that Mark’s arm was broken. Like his brother, he was out of school for months.
The impact on the family has been devastating. Both boys were homebound for many weeks where they received “home instruction” from the District. Mark, unlike his brother, is a child with a learning disability, which had only compounded matters for him in trying to keep up at school. Doctors have told the parents Mark will likely have some long-term medical issues due his injury. Meanwhile, the medical bills are piling up and the family is struggling. The District has refused to respond to requests by the family to cover the medical expenses. The stress has become so intense that the mother reports suffering from acute anxiety and panic attacks.
The District has so far not responded to requests by Talk of the Sound for comment on the allegations by Mrs. Rodriguez but we have some questions of our own:
- Why was Joseph sent to the nurse’s office without adult supervision?
- By what authority did the school nurse make a medical diagnosis in these two cases?
- Is it appropriate for a mandated reporter like a school nurse to use the threat of calling Child Protective Services to force a parent to leave the school? In this case, is there any logic to making a threat to call CPS because the mother will not take the child to the hospital because the mother is demanding that the school call an ambulance to take her child to the hospital?
- Given that the CDC reports that nearly half of all playground-related injuries nationally result in fractures, internal injuries, concussions, dislocations, and amputations, why is the default position of the District that playground-related injuries are not significant injuries? This based on the fact that no adult accompanied Joseph to the nurse’s office, the student was given a bag of ice for two broken wrists, no ambulance was called.
- Why did the District call an ambulance to New Rochelle High School for what Principal Don Conetta described as a “minor flesh wound” but refused repeated requests to do so in these two cases where both boys suffered such serious fractures that they were out of school of months?
- The CDC reports that a study in New York City found that playgrounds in low-income areas had more maintenance-related hazards than playgrounds in high-income areas. What is the condition of the IEYMS playground when compared to higher-income areas such as the playgrounds at North End schools?
If readers are interested to ask these and other questions or express their views on this matter I am sure they would love to hear from you. The school officials responsible can be reached as follows:
President of the Board of Education
City School District of New Rochelle
Superintendent of Schools
City School District of New Rochelle
Dr. Adrienne Weiss-Harrison
Medical Director/School Physician
City School District of New Rochelle
Isaac E. Young Middle School
City School District of New Rochelle
[if a reader has a picture of Mr. Bongo send it along]
Generally speaking, blog posts submitted to this site by registered users are published automatically and immediately. Given the serious nature of the allegations contained in this article, a decision was made to hold up publication to afford the District an opportunity to respond to the allegations contained in the article. Emails were sent to District medical director Dr. Adrienne Weiss-Harrison, the Superintendent of Schools Richard Organisciak and Isaac E. Young Middle School Principal Anthony Bongo. Each was provided detailed information about the nature of the allegations in this article and afforded an opportunity to respond to them Neither Organisciak, Weiss-Harrison or Bongo responded to our request for comment.
This account of events is largely based on an extensive and wide-ranging series of interviews with the mother and her sons over a period of weeks as well as documentation provided by the family including medical records and photographic evidence. We also spoke with law enforcement authorities, district employees, consulted the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia, and contacted officials at Child Protective Services in preparing to publish this article.
After careful consideration and after giving the District the opportunity to respond we made the decision to release the article for publication. Should the District respond at a later date we will publish their response as an update to this article.