NEW ROCHELLE, NY -- The Newtown Tragedy last month has brought to the forefront parent concerns about school safety across the county. New Rochelle is no different. Over the few weeks parents have shown up at board meetings to express concerns and demand answers. They have filled attended PTA meetings and engaged building leadership on perceived flaws and ideas for improvements ranging from better drop-off and dismissal procedures and door-checks to more extreme measures such as requiring parents to submit to background checks before entering schools and hiring armed guards to patrol the hallways.
In the immediate aftermath of Newtown, the board claimed that it was in full compliance with all state laws regarding school security. The following month Schools Superintendent Richard Organisciak admitted this was not true.
The school district has responded by with a combination of belligerence and vague assurances coupled with a flurry of feel-good measures with few, if any, concrete measures to step up security. Chief among them is a recent announcement by the Board of Education announced that it "directed that there be a complete review of security procedures and safety plans". It took the board about a month after Newtown, and numerous complaints from parents, for the Board take even this piddling step.
But what did they really say?
The Board statement issued last week states that the board is "speaking with the security risk managers at the New York Schools Insurance Reciprocal and other agencies about conducting a complete review of perimeter and interior security in every school building, which will include a review of doors, windows, staffing, staff training, response procedures, and other security measures".
Not mentioned is that this is a service offered at no cost to every public school district in New York which participates in the New York Schools Insurance Reciprocal. The board has failed to utilize this service for at least a decade.
Finally, the board states the security review will be "augmented by the retention of an outside security consultant, as necessary" (emphasis added). As regular readers know, I have been calling for such an outside review for years; hiring an outside security consultant was part of my platform when I ran for school board in 2011. The phrase "as necessary" indicates the lack of a definite commitment to hiring a security consultant to conduct a full security assessment.
As of this moment, despite the pretty words, there is still no security review under way and no firm commitment to hire an outside security consultant to perform an independent security assessment. This sort of vague, non-committal, kick-the-can-down-the-road statement from the board is typical of a strategy long-employed by Schools Superintendent Richard Organisciak to lull the community into a false sense of optimism that their concerns are being heard.
Some may ask why the district can not be taken at face value. Surely they care about the safety of children and their own employees?
The primary concern of the administration and board is to pass each year's school budget. That is the alpha and omega of the concern of our school district leadership. Everything comes second to that. Anything that interferes with passing the school budget is a threat that must be removed. The exposure of the district's utter failure to abide by New York school safety laws is one such threat as are the parents and other New Rochelle residents who have been shining a bright light on that failure.
The first response of the district leadership was to lie. They issued false and misleading statements including the bald-faced lie by Board President at the December 18th school board meeting where she asserted that the district was in full compliance with all school safety laws including the Project SAVE Law. Talk of the Sound has been reporting for years on the many failures to follow the SAVE law.
The Project SAVE Law is the central piece of legislation for school safety in New York State. Save stands for "Safe Schools Against Violence In Education". The New York State Center for School Safety summary lists 16 sections.
1. District-Wide School Safety Plan
2. Building-Level Emergency Response Plans
3. Codes of Conduct
4. Teacher Authority/Principal Authority
5. Uniform Violent Incident Reporting (VADIR Reporting)
6. Instruction in Civility, Citizenship, and Character Education
7. Health Curriculum
8. Interpersonal Violence Prevention Education
9. School Violence Prevention Training
10. Whistle Blower Protection
11. Fingerprinting (Background Checks)
12. Assaults on Teachers
13. Child Abuse Reporting
14. Prohibiting Silent Resignations
15. Teacher Discipline
16. Court Notification
The New Rochelle Board of Education has violated almost every aspect of this law over the last 5 years.
The District-Wide School Safety Plan has not been updated since 2009. The Building-Level Emergency Response Plans have not been updated since 2001 except for New Rochelle High School which was updated in 2006 after the new wing opened.
From 2001 to 2008 the school district did not make public the Code of Conduct, distributing to parents and students only a Summary version which contained only sections describing obligations of students and parents to the district and removed all sections that contained obligations of the school district to parents and students. Among them, the summary version removed all references to the Due Process rights of students in disciplinary proceedings. After Talk of the Sound reported on this extensively, the district began sending parents the full version. The district was given two years to update the Code of Conduct to include new anti-bullying provisions under the New York State Dignity for All Students Act. That deadline expired over the summer. The Code of Conduct was not updated by the end of the 2011-12 school year. An updated version was published and distributed to parents two weeks ago after numerous complaints by parents at school board meetings between July and December.
Violence and Disruptive Incident ("VADIR") Reports, each signed by Schools Superintendent Richard Organisciak. are routinely falsified to dramatically understate the number of violent and disruptive incidents in New Rochelle schools. Analysis by Talk of the Sound using police reports obtained from the New Rochelle Police Department through Freedom of Information requests shows that an accurate accounting of such incidents would result in New Rochelle High School and Isaac E. Young Middle School being classified as "persistently dangerous". Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, parents of students in schools classified as "persistently dangerous" are granted the option to move their children to another school. Isaac Young students would be allowed to transfer to Albert Leonard. New Rochelle High School students would be allowed to transfer to another area high school, at district expense.
Regarding Silent Resignations and Child Abuse Reporting, Jose Martinez was confronted by the parent of a victim of child abuse. He resigned without disclosing the allegation. The board never reported any allegations of child abuse by Martinez but did accept his resignation. Talk of the Sound reported on information that at least six mandated reporters were aware of "red flag" behavior by the convicted child rapist including board members, building-level administrators and Schools Superintendent Richard Organisciak. Talk of the Sound also reported on four other employees who engaged in sex with students. Three of the four still work for the district, ironically, the three remaining are all security guards, each was stationed at New Rochelle High School but two have since been relocated, one to Isaac Young and the other to Albert Leonard.
This is just a few examples of the many ways in which one law is violated wholesale. The district routinely fails to follow New York State Civil Service law, for years filed fraudulent "211 waivers", each signed by Schools Superintendent Richard Organisciak, to allow school district employees with state pensions to double-dip. Ironically, the primary beneficiary of these fraudulent waivers were district security officers including School Security Director Bruce Daniele. This practice ended after Talk of the Sound reported on this illegal practice for two years.
In 2011, I made a Freedom of Information request to the New York State Department of State. The scope of the request was "all security licenses where the employer had the word 'New Rochelle' in it". I made the request that way to cover "City School District of New Rochelle" or "New Rochelle Board of Education" and other possible variants that might be in their database.
In response to my request, I received a list of 8 people from the state database where the employer had the word "New Rochelle" in it -- all of them for the City School District of New Rochelle. Of those 8 people, only 1 had a current license (Cheryl Minor). Ironically she was one of three persons I had been checking when I made my FOIL request because I was told that at the time I made my request she was on the payroll, getting paid, AND working without a license. By the time my request was fulfilled many months later she had renewed her license. The other 7 included Frank Keefer (retired), Joe Johnstone (retired), Bruce Daniele, a man who had died and a few others. This left open the question how all the other guards were listed in the system because they were not listed under New Rochelle.
Many of the New Rochelle "general school aides" (their official title) work security ONLY at New Rochelle schools. This begged the question, if they were not listed with the New Rochelle schools then who were they listed with? I then followed up with more FOIL requests into 2012 but still do not have answers from Albany.
During a recent Albert Leonard Middle School PTA Meeting on School Safety, I asked the district's security consultant Ellen Garcia about this. Before she could answer, Assistant Superintendent John Quinn, took the microphone from Garcia and gave a non-responsive reply to the effect that "all security guards are properly licensed". Quinn added that "no security guards are allowed to work without a security license" but that if I had information to the contrary to provide it.
When the meeting ended I provided Quinn three names -- Cheryl Minor, Robert McLean and LeRoy Manual -- all employees who worked as security guards without a license. I further stated that Mr. Quinn personally approved allowing them to work without a license. Quinn stated that he would "look into it" and follow up with a letter addressing my two questions:
1. In 2011, who were the employers listed for the roughly "92" security guards who were NOT listed under the New Rochelle school district?
2. Were they any periods of time when Cheryl Minor, Leroy Manual, Bobby McLean worked with an expired license.
It is going on two weeks and Quinn has still not sent a letter.
Given the district's history of playing fast and loose with the SAVE law and school security, why should we trust the board and the administration now?
How do we know not to trust them?
A tell-tale sign is the lack of deadlines or a timeline in their recent announcement.
Another is that any results that do come will not be made public and district confined to committees staffed with district employees and a small number of parents, hand-picked for the perceived willingness to support the administration against all comers.
We have already seen evidence of that at a recent Davis PTA meeting on school security when Chris Danielo, a Davis parent and New York City police officer, was introduced as the recently appointed parent-member of the Davis school safety team. At the meeting, Danielo was confrontational, belligerent and uninformed. Danielo aggressively, rudely interrupted and challenged parents speaking at the Davis PTA Security meeting who were recounting concerns about various failures to the follow the SAVE law which places various security and safety requirements on public schools in New York State. Danielo later admitted he had not read the New York State Project SAVE Law.
At a meeting at the home of a Davis parent the night before the Davis PTA Security meeting, Danielo praised Security Director Bruce Daniele whom he said he had known for many years. Danielo claimed that Daniele was working for for the district for free. In fact, Daniele has been, for many years, one of the most highly compensated public sector employees in New Rochelle with a total compensation in excess of $150,000 a year in addition to his police pension which took him well over $200,000 a year.
What Chris Danielo has demonstrated so far is that he is a puppet, having his strings pulled by Schools Superintendent Richard Organisciak. It is these sort of belligerently uninformed parents that will be welcome on building-level school safety teams.
More broadly, rather than address the legitimate and entirely understandable fears and concerns of parents, the board and central administration have decided to hunker down while seeking to isolate critics, mislead parents and otherwise deflect attention away from a massive, systemic failure of district leadership. What choice do they have -- they have not updated a single building-level safety plan since 2006, most since 2001. The mantra has been "move on, look forward".
Why should we do that?
The same people who failed to do their job on school security are still in their jobs so why should the future be any different? Parents and residents would do well to recall the aphorism "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Without new leadership nothing will change.
School leadership is not asking parents to "move on" for the benefit of the parents. They want parents to ignore the utter failure of leadership in our schools because they are afraid these security failure might becoming a catalyzing force in May and cause the defeat of the 2013-14 school budget. And that's about it. That's all they care about -- passing the budget.
Unlike most every school district in our area, the Board of Education has failed to hold a single town hall meeting on school security instead devolving the responsibility on an ad hoc basis to the building PTAs leaving it to school principals to fend off hostile parents while attempting to explain a recently delivered school security "template" which they had no role in creating and for which neither they nor their staff has had any training.
School security staff do not report to building principals but rather the district-wide School Security Director, Bruce Daniele. Many guards have complained that they have still not been presented a copy of the new security template, had training or even met with Daniele since Newtown.
Board President Chrisanne Petrone told parents at a recent Jefferson School PTA Meeting on school security that the board had been discussing school security at recent board meetings. In fact, the subject of school security has not even been on the agenda at the two board meetings since the Newtown shootings on December 14th. At the two meetings that have taken place, parents who have come forward to address the board during the public discussion period have been harassed, interrupted, and bullied by board members, going so far as to turn off their microphone, arbitrarily limit their time and even threatening to terminate public discussion for all parents because a board member did not like the tone of one particular parent (not me!). In my case, I was threatened with physical removal from a meeting by security because I went 20 seconds over my allotted speaking time, attempting to complain about the heavy handed treatment of other parents who came to the board meeting to speak. More irony.
The simple fact is that the board and administration have been asleep at the helm for years on the issue of school safety yet now, with the sudden parent interest after Newtown, find themselves caught with their pants down.
Four days after Newtown, on December 18th Board President Chrisanne Petrone stated that the school district was in full compliance with all New York State laws regarding school security and particularly the Project SAVE law. In the weeks that followed I along with many others demonstrated conclusively the many ways in which the district was not in compliance with the laws designed to protect our children. Finally, after two weeks of lying about it, on January 3rd, the district admitted they were not in compliance with the Project SAVE Law.
Ever since, Schools Superintendent Richard Organisciak has retreated behind the artful dodge of claiming the district was "substantially in compliance" with the law or in compliance with the "spirit" of the law and dismissing anyone who questions that as nitpicking over "paperwork" issue.
It is not a "paperwork" issue when you are failing to run required background checks on new hires and you have almost a dozen employees involved with various sex crimes against children, most of whom have since been arrested by the New Rochelle police or the Westchester County District Attorney.
The Project SAVE Law, passed in 2000 in the immediate wake of the Columbine shootings, requires annual reviews at all levels by standing district-wide and building-level safety teams.
Under Organisciak these teams ceased to function. The most recent resolution that even mentions the work of a school safety team dates back to June 2009 and addresses only the district-wide plan. That plan was copied-and-pasted from the 2001 plan as evidenced by the transferring of out-dated information from one plan to the next. For example, the police contact for the district listed in the 2009 plan retired from the police department in 2004. He passed away in 2008 and so had been dead for more than a year when the board approved the 2009 plan. It is this sort of carelessness and lack of attention to important details which brings into question the entire plan and raises doubts among many parents whether the district takes its responsibilities seriously.
These safety teams are required to contain specific types of school personnel and parent members. They have not. Building principals hastily began appointing parent members to building safety teams over the Christmas break. None of the current draft building-level plans being circulated were produced by duly-constituted safety teams conducting plan reviews but rather are cut-and-paste from a template created by New Rochelle High School Assistant Principal Joseph Starvaggi and security consultant Ellen Garcia.
In a stupefying breach of standard security protocol, a highly detailed security document entitled "School Safety Plan and Procedures Manual for Davis Elementary School" was made publicly available on the Davis web site for weeks. Other schools have emailed PDF versions of their school plans to hundreds of people or handed them out to anyone who asked. Since the plans are based on a template, the distribution of any of these documents compromises the security of every school.
When I asked Albert Leonard Principal Dr. Velma Whiteside at the recent PTA meeting why the plans for her school were not online she said that she did not agree what has been done at Davis, she was unhappy about it because their plan it basically the same as her plan and that she did not want anything done that would put the kid's in her school at risk. My children attend these schools, my wife work's in these schools and putting these confidential plans on the web is irresponsible and places my family and other families at risk.
It was only after numerous complaints from parents and union members that the Davis "plan" was removed from the Davis site. For my part, I have been the leading critic of the district posting this plan and addressed the issue forcefully at the Davis PTA Security Meeting.
It is not that the board did not know about security issues in the schools.
The board has been made aware, many times, for years, both by security-minded employees and parents, including myself that the safety teams were not meeting and that safety plans were not being reviewed and updated. Talk of the Sound has reported for years on numerous security failures at the schools including many violent incidents, an intruder found hiding in a closet at Barnard, a teacher assaulted by a parent at Columbus after bypassing the security desk and much more.
The district was also caught defrauding the federal government and was required to pay restitution of over $300,000. This was never made public. Ironically, the fraud that occurred involved the district's Safe Schools/Healthy Students grant funding for which was supposed to be used, in part, to update school security plans and provide training for staff. When asked about this grant at the board meeting on Tuesday, Mr. Organisciak feigned ignorance of the grant.
Mr. Organisciak's dismissive attitude towards the Project SAVE Law is well-known in the district and throughout the state. In a 2011 New York Times interview, Organisciak cited the VADIR reporting requested of the law as an example of a meaningless state mandate.
Richard E. Organisciak, superintendent of the New Rochelle schools in Westchester, said some mandates were bureaucratic headaches — like a required yearly report on “violent and disruptive incidents,” which he said cost $25,000 annually in administrative time to investigate and document every dispute in a district with 10 schools. In return, he said, the district has received “very little feedback that has been of value to us.”
The law was not passed for the benefit of Mr. Organisciak. It was passed to protect students and staff. That Organisciak finds compliance a "headache" or that he does not get the sort of feedback he would like is irrelevant. VADIR reports are for parents to know if there child's school is safe and, if not, under the No Child Left Behind Act, to have the option to move them to a different school at district expense. In any case, he might find the feedback more valuable if he was not cooking the books to underreport crimes and other incidents in the school.
Mr. Organisciak's tenure at Superintendent began in August 2006. Given his on-the-record attitude towards VADIR, in particular, and the Project SAVE Law, in general, is it any wonder that on his watch not a single updated building plan has been drafted, completed and adopted by the board?
Organisciak has made it clear that he believes that complying with school safety law required intend to protect the children of New Rochelle are a waste of his time. He has flouted state and federal law as a matter of routine. He seems to revel in it. For reasons that remain unclear, our elected board members make themselves complicit in his malfeasance.
It's hard to say. I have been a close observer of this school board for years and I still cannot figure out how board members who individually have many admirable qualities could collectively become the single greatest force for evil in New Rochelle. And really that is what this is -- evil.
There is a lot to like about the New Rochelle school system. Transparency, accountability, and fiscal responsibility are not on the list. That begins and ends with the school board. They have failed time and time again.
But again, why?
While I cannot be sure, I can say that the leadership of the City School District of New Rochelle has, for many years, worked diligently to present a certain image of the New Rochelle school system: high-achieving, diverse, safe and generally a model of excellence.
Board members, administrators and school boosters exude pride in the diverse student population, split almost evenly among white, black and hispanic students. The student population is likewise diverse along socio-economic lines, demographics and religious beliefs. Generally speaking, it works. Students get along and children think little or nothing about the sort of differences in background that often preoccupy adults.
Each spring, board members crow that New Rochelle's school budget delivers "the most bang for the buck" among the districts in Westchester County. The budgets are always among the lowest on a per-student basis. There was even an actual budget reduction several years ago. The school is audited each year by a top-quality accounting firm and has always passed.
Above all the schools are presented as safe, nurturing environments for children to receive a quality education. All four of my children are products of the New Rochelle School System. My two oldest graduated from New Rochelle High School and went on to top universities where they were well-prepared for the academic rigors of post-secondary education. My two youngest are currently enrolled in New Rochelle schools. My wife has worked for the district for 15 years as a special educator. We are both well-acquainted with the many dedicated teachers, staff and administrators in the school district and know many of them to be good people who care deeply about their profession.
So, what's not to like?
To understand the problems currently plaguing our schools with lack of transparency and accountability you need to go back a few decades. At that time there was a major concern with white flight in New Rochelle. Board members and their supporters cast a wary eye at Mount Vernon schools and their eroding tax base as property values plunged and the school population become predominantly African-American. Many in New Rochelle perceived a need to stabilize and even increase the number of white families, especially in the high-property value North End.
The Barnard Elementary School became a particular flash point. The school, nestled comfortably in the largely white North End of New Rochelle, had an increasingly large African-American population. White families began pulling their children out of the school. Among the leaders of this effort more than two decades ago was Deidre Polow who rode the wave of North End discontent to a school board seat which she has held ever since.
It is this desire to protect North End property values by attracting and retaining white families that became the sine qua non of school board politics ever since. Whether board members are black, white or hispanic, they are all "anointed" to their position (few people get on the school board that the school board does not want on the board) because they will defend the status quo. If a board member steps out of line (e.g. Martin Sanchez, Jeffrey Hastie) they are smacked around, ostracized and effectively removed from meaningful board involvement.
Political correctness aside, there is no denying the logic. National statistics are clear that schools with larger white populations tend to be better funded, have students better prepared upon entering kindergarten, do better on standardized tests and are more likely to graduate, go onto college and the best ones at that. White families tend to be more affluent and are better able to support a local tax base. Attracting and retaining white families means more money in the budget which benefits all students -- white, black and hispanic.
The problem is that the premise of that logic is inherently racist. Tension arises due to the self-image of many North End residents who are often political progressives, rightly supporting racial equality for African-Americans, Latinos and all races, ethnicities and religions. Many live in the 10804 zip code which is a predominantly white enclave within the City of New Rochelle. The 2010 census shows that the 10804 zip code has less minorities than neighboring Scarsdale. They might champion the Westchester County housing settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice but are inoculated from it because the high percentage of black and hispanic residents in all other sections of New Rochelle masks that their neighborhood (and mine) -- the '04 as it is sometimes called -- is more than 85% white. By contrast, 45% of the 10801 zip code is non-White minorities, three times more diverse.
In order to advance this agenda, the board requires a delicate balancing act -- publicly supporting diversity but privately work to prevent white flight out of the schools. From time to time this balancing act tips over and the tension comes into public view. For example, the replacement of Jeffrey Hastie, an African-American, as Vice President of the board with Deidre Polow, who is white. Another example is the debate over minority graduation rates or the board's reluctance to release demographic data for teachers and administrators after adopting a formal diversity hiring policy. The number of minority teachers in New Rochelle stands in almost inverse proportion to the number of minority students.
When an issue threatens to undermine white support for the district and the board -- the vast majority of parents attending the security meetings and board meetings since Newtown are white -- the school leadership will say and do pretty much anything including telling falsehoods or doing incredibly stupid things like putting the school safety plan template on the Internet. More broadly, the culture that arises from this -- all focused on making white (and affluent non-white) families comfortable having their children in the New Rochelle schools -- is one where telling half-lies through a clever arrangement of facts intend to deceive becomes the norm at which point the entire leadership team is morally adrift.
Years of rot and decay in our school leadership has left the board so far out to sea that they can no longer make out the shore. Lost, and without a moral compass to guide them, they drift on, lie piled upon lie so that even lies to protect violent criminals and child molesters somehow become acceptable.
Having attended all of the board meetings and many of the PTA Safety meetings since Newtown, I can tell you that the district is furiously bailing as their tiny boat sinks -- they are throwing a lot of facts but few the bear directly on the core issues. They are throwing out lies and half-truths, but mostly it is what they are not saying. Those half-lies are the most dangerous sort because they are inaudible to all but a few who know a dog whistle when they hear it.
To paraphrase Claude Rains character from the David Lean film, Lawrence of Arabia, a man who tells lies merely hides the truth but a man who tells half-lies has forgotten where he put it.
Since Newtown, there have been intruders at Jefferson and New Rochelle High School, abandoned security posts during the middle of the day, doors left open and many other security failures. Staff is still not trained, security plants are still not drafted and available for public comment, the board has not adopted a building-level safety plan for over 10 years. In short, beyond hot air and some cosmetic changes, there has been no significant improvement in school security since Newtown.
At a recent incident at New Rochelle High School, three intruders refused to leave. The policy is clear -- call 911, put the school on lockdown and wait for the police to give the all clear. Instead, security staff was told by Security Director Bruce Daniele to get permission from Assistant Principal Joseph Starvaggi to call the police. That approval took over an hour to obtain.
While an official report is not due until March, news reports indicate the entire incident at Sandy Hook Elementary School took less than 20 minutes.