Written by Margaret Whitely Friday, 21 May 2010 00:00
At the last New Hyde Park/Garden City Park school board meeting, parents at the Garden City Park School expressed frustration, disappointment and anger at what they said was a lack of a timely response by administrators to an incident at the school when it is alleged that a male 6th grade student attacked a male classmate, also in the 6th grade.
According to the report of the police, and the parent of the child who was allegedly attacked, who was present and spoke at the meeting, the accused student removed his shirt, wrapped it around his classmate’s neck and then threatened him by holding a pair of scissors to his neck.
According to the parent, she then received a telephone call from the school principal, James Svendsen, relating to her what had happened. The parent said she was assured that the proper protocol had been followed, according to the district’s code of conduct and that the child, who allegedly attacked her son had been removed from the school.
She then went to school and removed her son, who she said was very upset and told her he was afraid for his life.
(The New Hyde Park/Garden City Park School District Code of Conduct states: “Any weapon, alcohol or illegal substance found shall be confiscated immediately, if possible, followed by notification to the parent of the student involved and the appropriate disciplinary sanction, which may include permanent suspension and referral for prosecution.
“The principal or his/her designee may notify the appropriate local law enforcement agency of those code violations that constitute a crime and substantially affect the order or security of a school as soon as practical, but in no event later than the close of business the day the principal or his/her designee learns of the violation.
“The notification may be made by telephone, followed by a letter mailed on the same day as the telephone call is made. The notification must identify the student and explain the conduct that violated the code of conduct and constituted a crime.”)
The parent, who spoke at the onset of the public comments portion of the meeting, said she waited for the police to contact her, thinking they had been contacted by the school, in compliance with the Code of Conduct. After two days, when they did not, she said she went to the Third Precinct and informed them of the incident, who told her they had not been contacted about it by school principal Svendsen or the school superintendent, Robert Katulak.
The parent continued speaking, describing what had occurred, saying the following school day, which was a Monday, the police arrived at the school and removed the child from the school and placed him into juvenile custody. She said in the meantime she had obtained a restraining order from a judge, which stated that the student could not be anywhere near her son except in school and only if the principal deemed it necessary. She said that apparently, the principal did deem it necessary because he allowed the student back into the same classroom the day after he had been removed by the police.
The parent, who was visibly upset, said she could no longer speak and left the microphone.
The next speaker was also from Garden City Park, and a New York City police detective. He said he has been a lifelong member of the community and three of his children attend the Garden City Park school.
He said, “Independent from the parent that just spoke, I found out about the incident, I’ll call the student the accused. The night before the accused was to return to the school, several fathers contacted me and said we should really go up to the school and find out what is going on.
“So we contacted principal Svendsen and we met with him in his office and we asked him about the incident. He assured us he was handling it perfectly. As a matter of fact his words were, ‘I’m very happy with the way we are handling the situation.’ So, I asked him to look outside his window where there were about 10 to 15 extremely angry and worried parents. Parents who had pulled their kids from class that day. Another parent was out there because his child was too afraid to go to school that day.”
The detective stated, regarding the three minute time limit on each speaker imposed by school board president Ernest Gentile, “You can keep looking at your watch because I am going to keep speaking until I am through.”
He then continued, “Why were the parents angry? Because their children were threatened physical harm and I’ll paraphrase the threat, ‘my father has guns and I’m going to bring them to school and I’m going to kill you.’ That was the threat made. Now, Mr. Svendsen said, ‘I really don’t think that threat was made.’ This was on Monday and the threat was made on the Wednesday prior to that. Svendsen said to me, ‘trust me, I’ll look into it.’ I said, well what about the scissors incident? The kid’s shirt comes off, he puts it around another kid’s neck and holds him in a chair and puts scissors to his neck?
“Svendsen said, ‘I’ll take care of it.’ I said a crime was committed. Mr. Svendsen, I’ve never doubted your abilities before but in this situation a crime was committed. He told me, ‘I really don’t see the crime.’ Mr. Svendsen, you’re a principal, you’re an educator, you’re a school administrator. I don’t tell you how to do your job. When it comes to identifying a crime, that’s my job.
“Why would the school system itself want to take that crime and investigate it when they are not trained to do so? Why would they want to interview the children when they are not really after the truth? Would it be in Mr. Svendsen’s best interest, as the principal of the Garden City Park School, to uncover an assault that occurred and to uncover a pattern of behavior that the accused has presented to the school over the course of this year?
“I just want to add that this is a very small community and at whatever event is being held, all the parents talk and we found out that this student was suspended for various acts throughout the year. The week of the scissors incident, he had been suspended and the day he returned from that suspension, was the day of the scissors incident.”
At this point, school board president Gentile said, “I just want to remind you that talking about a school incident is against the federal law.”
The detective countered, “I know, have somebody come and lock me up for talking about it. I am just telling you what the parents here already know. A child has been suspended, counseled a number of times and is sent back to school. It doesn’t work and when is the school going to realize that it doesn’t work?
“I then had a follow-up conversation with Mr. Svendsen. I asked him what was being done, was the accused back in school and what about the threats? He assured me my kids were safe, my friend’s kids were safe. I asked him about the follow-up of the investigation and he said he couldn’t find anyone who could corroborate the threats. Svendsen added, ‘I don’t really think that a threat occurred.’
“And then I saw emails from parents. Emails to Mr. Svendsen, the day before I spoke to him stating that their child was threatened. Kids coming forward saying they were threatened and a boy didn’t show up for school and his father said his son was too afraid to go to school. Yet, the school administration refused to identify what had happened.
“I had a conversation with New Hyde Park/Garden City Park Superintendent Robert Katulak, as did several other parents and we asked him why he just wouldn’t let the authorities investigate the incident because that is what they are trained to do. He said he had to worry about the rights of the accused. With that statement he infuriated the parents. He made us feel that he didn’t worry about the kids that were threatened, but he was just worried about the accused.
“School safety. It’s easy. If you get a threat, whether it’s real or perceived, you investigate it. Did Mr. Katulak or Mr. Svendsen investigate it? Absolutely not. You all work for us. We elected you, the board members, to make sure the administration is handling things correctly. I have come to the conclusion that the administration tried to cover up this incident and if they didn’t, then they are not capable of protecting our children.
“I’ll wrap this up. I’ve been to school board meetings before and have never spoken before, but when it comes to the safety of the kids I will open my mouth. I see a pattern. Something is changing.”
Another parent, a doctor, came forward and said he is deeply dismayed. He said, “I don’t hold Mr. Svendsen accountable for this. Instead, I think it goes right to the top and I think the board needs to hold Superintendent Katulak accountable. I was one of the parents outside the office that morning and I was not satisfied when Mr. Katulak said, as he walked away from us, that we have nothing to worry about.
“Ironically, the incident was pretty much on the anniversary of Columbine. I think since then schools do have codes of conduct, ours is very comprehensive. A few words need to be changed to firm it up. I would hate this to be the kind of school district where children are suspended for making finger guns or for sticking their tongue out or sneaking a kiss from a kindergarten girl. But, at the same token, we cannot let what has been described tonight go unaccounted for by our superintendent. I hope that you respect my opinion, as a fellow parent, and hold him accountable for this.”
Many of the parents came to the podium to complain that they had not been informed of the incident and the school counsel said it was against federal law for the board or the administration to discuss what occurs with another student with anyone other than that child’s parents.
Prior to the end of the meeting it was established, by the board, that they would be meeting very soon, to change some of the verbiage in the school’s Code of Conduct in order to make it more effective.
Since this portion of the meeting was at the end of the very long meeting, a motion was called to adjourn the meeting and it was passed.
The next New Hyde Park/Garden City Park School Board meeting will be held at 8 p.m. on June 14 at the Manor Oaks School, 1950 Hillside Avenue, New Hyde Park.