This much appears to be undisputed: On March 16 two Haitian students at PS 34 in Queens Village were involved in a fight of some sort.
City Education Department investigators, area school leaders, members of the Haitian community and a southeast Queens civil rights organization have been trying to figure out exactly what happened from that point, as allegations surfaced that the two students and 11 of their Haitian classmates were unduly punished and humiliated immediately after the incident. The attempts to find out the truth have illustrated the nature of memory, the challenge of interviewing young children and the difficulties inherent in hearing information secondhand. Existing fault lines between Haitians and American-born blacks have also been exposed.
"The kids were definitely traumatized over something," said an education leader in School District 29, which includes PS 34. "It's very hard to ask children what happened. Who will the investigators believe?"
Elsie Saint-Louis Accilien, the head of Haitian-Americans United for Progress in Queens Village, has said the two students, along with 11 other Haitian fourth-graders and fifth-graders not involved in the altercation, were made to sit on the lunchroom floor and eat without utensils. She said they were ordered to do so by Assistant Principal Nancy Miller, a white administrator who also allegedly told the students that people in Haiti were treated in a similar manner, like "dogs" or "animals." The school's principal, Pauline Shakespeare, who is black, then reputedly offered the students treats to cover up the incident, Accilien said.
While Miller and Shakespeare were initially left in the school pending an investigation by the Education Department's Office of Special Investigations, an inquiry not yet complete as of Monday, Miller has since been transferred to a regional office at her request because of threats she received, the School District 29 leader said.
The Haitians parents have demanded that both administrators be fired. Accilien's group is assisting the parents and students with their complaints, and several of them verified her account at a rally outside the school and by telephone. At the community education council meeting last Thursday, however, those in attendance said parents and students offered varying accounts of what happened.
Some said the students were made to sit on the cafeteria floor, while others said the children were told to sit in the gym, possibly on bleachers. There was no clear answer on the intensity of the fight, whether that day's lunch was finger food or required utensils, and who offered the alleged bribes, Miller or Shakespeare. Translation issues also came into play, since many of the parents speak only Haitian Creole and required interpreters to convey their complaints to the largely English-speaking crowd, the attendees said.
When asked about the apparent discrepancies, Accilien said she had heard only one version, even though the parents were still working together on forming one written account to submit to officials.
The allegations of mistreatment have also become an issue for the Jamaica chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. But while Accilien showed up for a meeting held by the group Sunday, none of the Haitian parents did. Accilien and other Haitian representatives present said the parents did not feel the need to tell their stories again, and were distrustful of organizations run by American-born blacks, who they said have mistreated them over the years.
"There's an overall disrespect toward Haitians in the community," said Cassandre Verneus, a Haitian teacher from Brooklyn with friends and colleagues in southeast Queens. "There's an overall concern about it, not just this incident."
Accilien said the parents were also upset that they had not gotten a direct reply yet from Schools Chancellor Joel Klein.
NAACP members pointed out that administrators are usually taken out of their schools immediately in such situations and said the claims of black children are not taken as seriously by officials. The members said they wanted to help, but needed to speak directly with the parents and students.
"We've got to be united on this," NAACP Second Vice President Leroy Gadsden said. "It could be anybody's children."
Reach reporter Michael Morton by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 154.
©Times Ledger 2005