NAACP representative Leroy Gadsen speaks to the audience at the organization’s office in Jamaica.
Officials from the Queens branch of the NAACP on Sunday night pledged to stand with the community against the alleged actions of an assistant principal at PS 34 in Queens Village.
Students and parents say that on March 16th, in response to a minor spat between two children, Assistant Principal Nancy Miller forbade 13 Haitian students in a bilingual class from sitting on cafeteria chairs or using utensils. She instead forced the children to eat from the floor using only their hands.
Miller then allegedly told the children, “In Haiti they treat you like animals and I will treat you the same way here.”
News of the incident, which broke last week in the daily presses, prompted a flurry of angry demonstrations by the community and strongly worded press releases from local politicians.
“It is unconscionable that the Department of Education has not reached out to the parents, students or the PTA to discuss the incident,” said City Councilman Leroy Comrie in a release. His colleague, Councilwoman Eva Moskowitz called the allegations a “new low.”
The NAACP quickly organized an exploratory meeting to gather facts and begin to construct an appropriate legal response.
About 40 people packed into the basement of its Linden Boulevard office. None of the parents of the children attended, but many others who were familiar with the case were there. At one point a member of the Department of Education was outed at the meeting and subsequently removed.
“We love you. We will stand with you,” Leroy Gadsen, the branch’s second vice president told the emotional crowd. “We are experts in civil rights, we have lawyers who have been doing this for decades.”
However, Gadsen stressed that legal team members cannot move forward until they’ve talked directly with the victims and collected as much information about the incident as possible. All the information right now is “hearsay.”
One audience member, who did not wish to be identified, said she spoke with some parents who confirmed that the reports in the press regarding Miller’s actions were correct. “The children are hurt,” she said.
Timothy James, president of the Community Education Council for District 29, has also spoken with the parents and confirmed the reports. He said he did not hear of the allegations until the last scheduled meeting, which would have been on March 24th, although James could not remember the exact date.
Parents and community members are especially upset that no action had been taken against the officials accused. “We shouldn’t have to pay to be discriminated against,” Gadsen said.
While Miller has been transferred at her own request, Principal Pauline Shakespeare, who, along with Miller, allegedly attempted to bribe the children’s silence with sweets, is still at the school.
Both women are subjects of an Office of Special Investigations probe.
DOE spokesperson Keith Kalb said there is no set policy regarding the removal of faculty or administrative officials under investigation and actions are taken on a “case by case” basis.
In an April 18th letter to Chancellor Joel Klein, State Senator Malcolm Smith requested that Miller and Shakespeare be immediately suspended.
Comrie, in a phone interview on Monday afternoon, said counselors are now available for the students.
However, he agreed that the DOE has been slow to come up with a resolution to the issue. “(The DOE) needs to encourage (the OSI) to come up with a speedy report.”
The councilman also believes parents deserve an apology for allowing Miller to transfer from the school because she feared for her safety. “Nobody threatened her,” he said, adding that the parents would like her permanently removed.
Comrie said that what happened was severely injurious to the children and the parents needed assurances that it would not happen again and that the DOE was giving the incident the proper attention.
Gadsen demanded that top city officials take responsibility for the situation. “The mayor’s got to be here for all people,” he said.
The NAACP hopes to meet with the parents of the abused students as soon as possible and would like other community members to help facilitate the get-together.
As the meeting ended, the entire audience joined hands and sang the song most familiar with the long struggle for civil rights: “We shall overcome.”
Afterward, one man said it would be nice if someday the words could be changed to “We have overcome.”