Bathroom ban, security provoke angst at Murry Bergtraum

BY Aline Reynolds

Students and faculty at Murry Bergtraum High School may not be leaving in great spirits for the holiday season.

The school was in a state of chaos on Thursday, December 9 when hundreds of students rioted on the fourth floor, shortly after first-year principal Andrea Lewis denied students access to the facilities, according to students and various news reports.

The bathroom ban was enforced after an altercation broke out that morning between two male students, landing one of them in the hospital. In an attempt to prevent loitering that could lead to another fight, Lewis enforced a day-long rule that students could only use the bathrooms with a special pass granted to them by the school’s dean, according to students.

A group of teens planned the outbreak through a series of text messages earlier that day, according to Gotham Schools, which first reported the riot.

“The students were aggravated, so they started to run around and scream,” said junior Randy Zabala, who witnessed it from the sidelines.

The incidents that day resulted in several suspensions of students, according to Margie Feinberg, a spokesperson for the D.O.E.

A tenth grader at the school who requested anonymity said that the principal is responsible for provoking the students by prohibiting the use of the bathrooms.

Zabala agreed. “There was no need to ban bathroom passes,” he said. “That was going overboard.”

Another student, Anthony French, said the principal took the wrong course of action. “She could have resolved the situation in a different way,” he said.

The riot, some said, was the outgrowth of “deep-seated” resentment toward the school, according to John Elfrank-Dana, the school’s United Federation of Teachers chapter leader.

The weekend after the riot, Elfrank-Dana wrote the M.B. faculty a letter explaining the students’ dissatisfaction with the school as a whole. Lewis bathroom ban, he said, precipitated the riot, which “wouldn’t have happened if it were not for a resentment brewing in the students.” The students know they are receiving a “junk education,” Elfrank-Dana added, caused by overcrowding and poor curriculum choices.

Others attribute students’ outcry to Lewis, who began enforcing more stringent rules since taking charge this fall in an effort to improve student performance and thwart violence. “The students are not taking well to the principal’s style,” said Gregory Floyd, president of Teamsters Local 237, the union that represents school safety agents citywide. “They need to have a meeting with the students and hear their side of the story, and from there see what can be done to resolve this.”

Last year, students would frequently congregate in Burger King and elsewhere along Fulton Street, becoming rowdy and even assaulting a Southbridge Towers resident on one occasion.

Another M.B. tenth grader, who requested anonymity, said that Lewis is taking the new rules a bit too far. “She’ll throw out our breakfast when we come into school,” he said, forcing him and his friends to eat at a diner in the mornings.

Zabala said he greatly preferred former principal, Barbara Esmilla, who Lewis replaced in September. “I felt welcome with open arms [by her],” he said.

He and others expected similar treatment when Lewis took over. “We thought that it was going to be different than it is now,” said Zabala.

Safety Officer is Assaulted

On December 13, the Monday following the riots, school safety agent Jayquon Pickwood, 23, brought a female student who had been injured in a fight to the nurse’s office, according to Tania Lamberg, assistant director of communications for Teamsters Local 237. Another female teen walked into the nurse’s office with her 17-year-old boyfriend, who then waited for her to be evaluated, according to the account. Pickwood, who was accompanied by an N.Y.P.D. enforcement officer at the time, asked the boyfriend to leave the nurse’s office. The boyfriend refused and said, “You have to put cuffs on me to leave.”

After some back-and-forth, the male took a swing at the N.Y.P.D. officer, missed, and then threw a metal garbage can that hit Pickwood in the forehead. The N.Y.P.D. officer managed to subdue and cuff the perpetrator, who was charged with an assault misdemeanor.

Pickwood ended up with a bruise and minor swelling on his head. He resumed work a day or two later, according to Lamberg’s account.

The school safety agents, Lamberg said, are often the ones in jeopardy when trying to break up fights between youths. “The danger is real, and it’s daily, even for the teachers,” she said.

The youths’ restlessness around the holidays, she added, could have contributed to the riot the week before. “They think, ‘I don’t want to be here, I want to party,’” Lamberg said. “In that context, the chances are higher that this kind of thing might happen.”

Floyd acknowledged that violence in public schools citywide tends to escalate before winter break.

Students Subjected to Metal Detectors

The N.Y.P.D. implemented metal detectors at the school on Monday, December 27 and the Monday before in order to vet students’ belongings, according to students and various news reports.

Both times, the M.B. students said their cell phones were confiscated and stored in zip lock bags during the school day. A tenth grade male student who requested anonymity said he had to wait an hour-and-a-half to retrieve his phone from the school auditorium after class let out. “I was annoyed,” he said. “I just wanted to go home and do my homework.” He and his peers, he said, have been checked more frequently this year than last.

Feinberg said that it is standard procedure for mobile police units to periodically perform unannounced inspections at public schools citywide. She wouldn’t comment on whether it was tied to the incidents of the week before, but she did state that the detectors are not permanent fixtures in the school.

As for improving the relationship between students and the administration, so far it appears as if nothing will change.

Principal Lewis did not return calls for comment in press time, but Feinberg said the school safety office “continues to monitor the situation and work with the principal.”

Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, noted the difference between a student protest such as the December 9 riot at M.B. and gunfire. “Let’s not confuse that with kids bringing weapons into the schools or other serious safety matters, she said.

She cautioned that the recent disturbances at M.B. shouldn’t result in harsher disciplinary action by the school’s administrators. “The kids who go to that school say that they feel safe,” she said. “Let’s keep it that way, without undermining their self-respect and dignity.”