Following a monthlong investigation, charges have been substantiated that a Queens Village assistant principal made 12 Haitian students eat their lunch on a gymnasium floor using their hands and called them "animals" as punishment for a fight between several members of their group, Schools Chancellor Joel Klein said Monday.
The administrator, Nancy Miller of PS 34, will not return to the school at 104th Avenue and Springfield Boulevard and will face a disciplinary hearing and possible termination, Klein said.
"We regret that these children were subjected to this unacceptable behavior and apologize to them and their families," the chancellor said.
But while a report issued by the Office of Special Investigations confirmed Miller's misconduct in the incident that happened March 16, it said there was not "sufficient evidence" that she referred to the students' ethnicity or homeland in a derogatory manner, an accusation that had further enraged parents.
Principal Pauline Shakespeare, who was not at school on the day of the punishment, was not negligent in the way she reported the matter, the investigators said.
Elsie Saint-Louis Accilien, the head of Haitian-Americans United for Progress in Queens Village, said the students' parents were glad the department had taken the accusations seriously, but thought Shakespeare should have been punished.
"They're grateful some of the demands have been met, but they're outraged she was not removed," said Accilien, who has helped the parents deal with the incident. "The community is still upset."
The students Miller forced to sit on the floor were members of a bilingual class of Haitian fourth- and fifth-graders taught in English and Creole. After speaking with the parents, Accilien said she had a deeper understanding of the school under Shakespeare, who came on board in March 2004. Accilien said Shakespeare, who is black, did not want Creole spoken in her school and made it an unfriendly place for Haitian students, teachers and parents.
"That principal has never treated them with respect," Accilien said, explaining that Shakespeare created the environment that led to the gymnasium mistreatment. "She set the stage." Accilien also said she still believed Miller, who is white, disparaged Haiti and Haitians despite the investigators ruling otherwise. "That's baloney," she said.
In compiling their report on the incident, investigators examined written statements by the students and conducted interviews with the youngsters, Shakespeare, Miller, and other faculty and staff. Asked whether she had enemies at the school, Miller told investigators that Haitian teachers at PS 34 believe she and Shakespeare want to get rid of Creole instruction. Miller also said she assumed the students were done with lunch and denied any of them had asked for utensils but were turned down.
Investigators ruled that Miller's lunch explanation was not credible. But while they gave credence to reports she called the students "animals," they did not find sufficient evidence that she had disparaged Haiti since only a couple of students said she had done so. They also found no proof that the assistant principal made similar comments last fall, another allegation.
In other interviews, a guidance counselor told investigators she did not credit the students' allegations at first because of the language barrier, the report said.
While the investigation was under way, many Haitians in the community said they had been discriminated against by American-born blacks for years, and an education leader in the area's School District 29 worried the incident would create lasting divisions.
Klein said guidance counselors and a bilingual social worker had been sent to talk with the children. City Councilman Leroy Comrie (D-St. Albans) called on Shakespeare to heal PS 34.
"Many of the children do not feel comfortable returning to the school," he said. "If those feelings continue to manifest themselves over time, it is possible that further changes may have to be made at PS 34."
Meanwhile, Timothy James, the head of District 29's community education council, wanted assurances that Miller would be fired.
"In District 29, this can never ever happen again," he said.
Reach reporter Michael Morton by e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 154.
©Times Ledger 2005