It's the kind of spat that flares thousands of times a day in schools all over the country.
But at Public School 34 in Queens Village, Assistant Principal Nancy Miller's ghastly way of handling a minor scuffle between two Haitian fourth-graders has sparked fury.
According to parents and students, Miller, who is white, chose to punish all 13 Haitian pupils in the school's only fourth-grade bilingual class - even though just two were involved in the March 16 incident.
She ordered all 13 to sit on the cafeteria floor, then made them use their fingers to eat their lunch of chicken and rice, while all the other students watched.
"In Haiti, they treat you like animals, and I will treat you the same way here," several students recalled Miller saying.
Some of the punished fourth-graders were so humiliated they began to cry. A few begged Miller for spoons to eat.
Her behavior has triggered a probe by the schools' office of special investigations, as parents accused Miller of racial bias and demanded that she and the principal be fired.
One of those punished was Woosvelt Isac. His father, Sony Isac, noticed the boy was upset that night.
"He was almost crying," Isac said yesterday. "I asked him what was wrong. Then he told me, 'They put me sitting on the floor. They put me to eat with my hands.' I couldn't believe it."
At the suggestion of a teacher, several children wrote their accounts of the incident that afternoon in their bilingual class.
This is what one child wrote:
"Mrs. Miller made me and our classmates sit on the floor to eat our lunch. She said that we are animals and we got it from our country. ... I was hurt, and when I got to my class I told my teacher about what happened. I did not like what she said about my country."
Isac and other parents complained to the principal, Pauline Shakespeare. They claim that Shakespeare, who is black, tried to cover for Miller.
They also claim school officials tried to bribe the kids with ice cream to deny the incident happened!
An April 1 note written by one of the children, Ronald Destine, backs that claim:
"Today after questioning my friend and I for the fourth time, the principal [Mrs. Shakespeare] sent the guidance lady [Mrs. Gilbert] to get me in my classroom while I was reviewing math.
"When we got to her room, Mrs. Gilbert asked me what the school could do to have us change my story.
"I answered, nothing because I want the truth to come out! At this time, she offered free ice cream to us so we could say something else.
"I have a big math exam coming this month, and I would like for the principal to stop harassing my classmate and I. Please do something."
No one at the school was talking yesterday.
When I reached Miller by phone yesterday, she would only say, "I can't talk about it, because it is under investigation."
Shakespeare did not return calls for comment. Elizabeth Bandy, the school's parent coordinator, sounded more like another bureaucrat than someone representing parents.
"I heard about it but I'm not at liberty to speak about it because it's under investigation," Bandy said.
A spokesman for Schools Chancellor Joel Klein confirmed that the office of special investigations has opened a probe into allegations of corporal punishment by Miller, noting that Education Department officials were taking the charges seriously.
Word of what happened in PS34 has been the big topic on the city's many Haitian radio programs for more than a week.
"The community is definitely outraged about this," said Dahoud Andre, host of one of those programs, "Lakou Nouyòk."
Parents and Haitian community leaders plan to picket the school today.
They want it made clear that educators who abuse and intimidate children, of any race, don't belong in our schools.
Originally published on April 12, 2005