Still No Accounting of January School Violence by New Rochelle Board of Education

Written By: Robert Cox

NEW ROCHELLE, NY — As is widely known in New Rochelle, between January 10th and January 18th of this year there was an unprecedented rash of student-on-student violence that ended with the death of one student and a near-fatal stabbing of another.

The response from school officials has been, to date: (1) attend a press conference convened by the Mayor in which both the Schools Superintendent and High School Principal repeatedly lied about the history of the closed campus policy at the high school; (2) accept the Mayor’s hiring of Anthony Weiner’s PR firm; (3) accede to the Mayor’s idea for a joint committee later named the Task Force on Reducing Violence in the Lives of Children and Youth where over a period of three months, 46 people gathered to discuss various topics; (4) hire Guidepost Solutions, a security firm, to make recommendations on school security; (5) hold a public/media event around a rare joint City Council – School Board meeting to receive a presentation by the Task Force chairperson; (6) appoint a board sub-committee to review the Task Force recommendations; (7) appoint a security committee under the New York SAVE Law which will also review the Task Force recommendations; (8) receive a City government response to the Task Force recommendations; (9) receive security recommendations from Guidepost Solutions; (10) hold a public meeting to receive a presentation on a redacted version of the Guidepost Solutions report which will now be referred to a board subcommittee and the newly created SAVE committee both of which will make recommendations to the board. And all these recommendations and reports will generate board discussions and ultimately may result in policy decisions.

To borrow from the Bard, a lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Absent by design from all of this is any inquiry by the District into the relationship between the students involved in these violent incidents and the school district from when they first matriculated into the schools until January 2018, any investigation into the circumstances leading up to the rash of student on student violence 7 months ago, and no “tick tock” on the sequence of events that occurred on January 10th (Valaree Schwab murder), January 17th (Z’inah Brown court appearance and assault of Bryan Stamps at a pizza shop) and January 18th (Bryan Stamps stabbing a classmate in the high school).

There has been no accounting of and accountability for the grave security failures including the failures on January 18th: not a single school district employee called 911 after a student was stabbed twice, in two vital organs, while the perpetrator fled the scene, this despite five different relevant board-approved protocols that require an immediate call to 911; a security guard ignoring repeated, explicit instructions not to open the main entrance “embassy” doors minutes after the school was put on lockout; the District Medical Director ordering her staff not to call 911, to not notify police, to not provide police a description of the suspect, to not call an ambulance but rather directing her staff to call a grandparent to come to the school to remove the stabbing victim from school property.

Members of the Task Force on Reducing Violence in the Lives of Children and Youth were specifically told, at their initial meeting, that there would no review, discussion or comment about the violence which took place from January 10 to January 18. As a result, the Task Force never discussed the circumstances leading up to the violence or what transpired on those days. The Task Force recommendations did not address the topic, the presentation to the City Council and School Board did not address the topic. The review of Task Force recommendations by the City staff did not address the topic. The School Board sub-committee and the SAVE committee will thus not review the events of those days in January or the context in which they occurred.

Reviews by these same committees reviewing the Guidepost Solutions report will also not review the events of those days in January or the context in which they occurred because they are not part of the Guidepost Solutions report.

There was no SAVE committee review of those events at the time because the SAVE committee had effectively ceased operating which is why a new committee was reconstituted this past Tuesday.

There was no review by the District security staff. There was no review by the building leadership. There was no review by any one in the District.

In the context of bringing to light what took place in January, the subsequent reviews of the Task Force recommendations are all fruit from a poison tree in that they are all compounding the original sin of precluding any consideration of the circumstances and events of the violence in January. The Guidepost Solutions report is more of the same.

The premise of the Task Force report is that the students involved “fell through the cracks” due to a lack of social and emotional support and therefore the solution to addressing the January violence is more money.

The Task Force, which met in secret, did not operate under parliamentary rules, did not keep minutes or record votes, violated its own stated policy that the four subcommittees would make the recommendations (Chairperson Dr. Jonathon Brice added two of his own) and only those where there was consensus (Dr. Brice included two highly controversial ideas — armed police officers in the high school and a partially-open/closed campus — despite a marked lack of consensus). The Task Force was stacked with people representing organizations who used their position on the Task Force to advocate for the City and School District to fund their organizations. The Superintendent used the Task Force recommendations, before they were even made, to justify a school budget that broke the tax levy cap on the grounds that the high school need more social-emotional support staff (after the first budget failed miserably a second budget that did not break the tax levy cap but did include funding for additional counselors passed).

A topic for another day is the so-called “fundraising” done under the guise of the phony #NewRoStrong campaign.

What becomes clear is that school officials, non-profit groups and any resident able to print a few t-shirts saw the murder of a high school student and the near-fatal stabbing of another as an opportunity to cash in.

No one except this reporter, the New Rochelle Police Department and the Westchester County District Attorney has shown even the slightest interest in an investigation and report on what took place on those violent January school days and what led up to them.

If there was a real, hard look at what went on with those violent incidents the premise of the Task Force and all that has flowed from it would collapse — shutting off the money spigot.

Were Z’inah Brown and Bryan Stamps “known” to school administrators not only at the high school but the middle schools as well?

Were they “known” to police, especially the youth officers?

Did they get referred to a Committee on Special Education for a psychological-educational evaluation?

Did they have a prior disciplinary history?

Did they have prior arrests or experience with the criminal justice system?

Were they given “supports and services” in an IEP? Did they have a 504? Were they supported beyond an IEP or 504?

Were they receiving support from or involved with non-profit organizations like the Guidance Center, the NAACP, the Boys & Girls Club?

Were they receiving support from or involved with government agencies and programs at the local, county, state or federal level? Directly or through their family, guardian or head of household?

Without determining the answer to these and other questions about Brown and Stamps, the Task Force, the City Council, the School Board, the Mayor, the Superintendent, and the various committee members have no basis to claim that these students “fell through the cracks” and therefore the recommendations to fund new school staff and non-profit organizations are nothing but self-serving “solutions” looking for a problem.

Z’inah Brown and Bryan Stamps did not engage in some random, inexplicable violence that came out of the blue. School administrators, school security officers, counselors and police officers knew these students to be “troubled” long before January 2018.

These students did not “fall through the cracks” they were ticking time bombs and quite a few District employees knew that before the pair exploded into murderous violence.

The problem for school officials is that an investigation would identify specific failures attributed to specific people and that would mean accountability which no one running the school district wants — posturing and rhetoric aside.

For example. Z’inah Brown was referred to a Committee on Special Education but she was rejected for an Individualized Education Plan by the CSE Chairperson on the grounds that “she was a psychopath”. An IEP is applied to students with Learning Disabilities, Emotional Disabilities and Mental Disabilities. To say a student is a psychopath and thus ineligible for an IEP is like saying a student should not be provided a wheel chair because they have no legs.

That CSE Chairperson was allowed to quietly resign after the murder of Valaree Schwab and no longer works for the District.

An investigation would show not that Brown and Stamps fell through cracks but that some District employees failed to do their job. Such an investigation would both undermine the current money grab and place the blame on some district employees and neither the board or administration (or Mayor) want that.

A security review would show the Dr. Brooke Balchan, the District Medical Director, ordered her staff to violate the school security protocol, directing them not to call 911 to get an ambulance to the school as a student lay dying from internal bleeding from knife wounds to two major organs. It is inexplicable that this woman still has a job with the District.

A security review would show that a security guard repeatedly opened the doors to the main entrance during a lockout, despite repeated instructions not to do so under any circumstances. It is inexplicable that this woman still has a job with the District.

A security review would show that teachers and security staff were under orders NOT to call 911 from now-Interim Principal Joseph Starvaggi and recently fired Principal Reggie Richardson.

For these reasons and many more the school board has chosen to appoint committees and hire consultants and expand the budget to hire new staff and give away money to non-profits while going out of their way to not know anything about the circumstances that led to the school violence in January, the events of those days and what failures occurred.

Until that happens, all the talk about security being the number one concern is hogwash.

Still not convinced?

On Tuesday evening Joseph Starvaggi gave his first speech as interim Principal to the school board. He began by claiming that the number one priority for the high school this year would be security. Board members nodded approvingly. Some in the audience clapped or cheered.

Earlier that day, on Tuesday afternoon, Joseph Starvaggi sent an email to all high school staff advising them they could prop open Emergency Exits to classrooms which open into the Administrative parking lots, a long-standing practice put on hold for a few weeks until the parking lot is re-paved and striped.

The propping open of Emergency Exits was a security failure identified by VRI in 2013, and presumably by Guidepost Solutions in 2018. It is the most fundamental requirement of protecting the security envelope of the high school; to keep these doors closed at all times except in the event of an evacuation.

When a person who has been in charge of security at the high school for years is actively instructing staff to prop open Emergency Exits at 2 pm then telling the world that security is his number one concern at 9 pm then you to start to understand the disconnect between rhetoric and reality, between grandstanding and effective leadership.

Still not convinced?

Much was made Tuesday night by board members of air conditioners at Jefferson, especially the failure to develop a board policy. Board members were apparently unaware that as the board they set board policy not staff.

This reporter sits on the District-Wide Healthy and Safety Committee which has oversight responsibility for school construction and facility safety issues including fire safety.  Two years ago I raised the issue of developing a policy for recommendation to the school board to address teachers installing unauthorized electrical equipment in their classrooms, which are often not plugged directly into wall outlets as required under the fire code. The New Rochelle Fire Department has cited the District for illegal wiring and unrated devices in classrooms for years, going so far as to rip out extension cords during one inspection at Barnard.

Our committee discussion centered on personal-size refrigerators which run 24/7, use up a lot of energy, generate heat because they have no internal cooling systems, contribute to mold in classrooms and are often illegally wired with power strips and extension cords. Similar concerns apply to microwave ovens, coffee pots, hot plates — and air conditioners. A board policy would need to address all such equipment.

I developed a draft policy which was circulated to the committee, including a board member who sat on the committee and the administration.

The entire discussion was shut down and my proposal tabled by district employees supported by the heads of the two unions, F.U.S.E. (Marty Daly) and the Administrators and Supervisors Bargaining Unit (Joe Starvaggi) on the grounds that there should be no policy restricting what electrical equipment teachers can put into their classrooms.

All of this of a piece with why there is no investigation into the events of January. 

No one wants to set policy and even when policy is set no one wants to follow it and there is no enforcement action when policy is not followed, even when that results in the death of a student, or violating the security envelope of our school buildings or preventing clear and obvious fire hazards especially in schools like Barnard and Webster which are wood-frame construction which fire officials have described as “fire traps”.

What we have seen so far from school officials is a deliberate effort to avoid an accounting of what took place in January by staging a series of PR stunts around committees that are deliberately enjoined to not look at the events in January who then offer meaningless “solutions” meant to address “problems” baselessly attributed to a lack of resources available to support the perpetrators of horrible violence. The purpose is to give the community, potential homebuyers and real estate developers false comfort without actually addressing the issues: that there were resources available to support Brown and Stamps, that their actions were not unforeseeable, that certain individuals engaged in conduct that was negligent if not criminal, that school administrators and employees routinely conspire to undermine basic security protocols like “call 911” or “keep doors closed and locked from the outside” or “do not illegally wire unapproved electrical appliances in classrooms”, that school officials say one thing in public then do the opposite in practice, that there is no real commitment to school security or accountability by district leadership.

The solution is simple.

Hire an independent outside investigator to evaluate the relationship between the two perpetrators and the District and do the same to construct the timeline of what took place, identify the various decision points and success and failures, identify by name employees who failed to follow procedure or otherwise do their job and then retrain them, discipline them or terminate them depending on the nature of the conduct.

At this point, the Superintendent, the High School Principal and the CSE Chairperson are gone or going. The Medical Director needs to go as does the security guard working the main entrance doors on the morning of January 18th. District staff, especially teachers, security guards and nurses need to be instructed in writing to ignore any orders not to call 911 if, in their judgement, a 911 call is appropriate; better to err on the side of caution then let a student die in a nurse’s office or allow a violent felon to flee to Alabama.

Just know that until such time as the board commissions a searching and fearless, independent investigation into the context and events of January 10th, January 17th, and January 18th they are not actually committed to fixing what ails the City School District of New Rochelle when it comes to school security.

For my part, whether certain people like it or not, I will continue to advocate for the safety and security of students, parents, teachers and staff in our schools as a member of the District-Wide Healthy and Safety Committee under the RESCUE Law and now as a newly appointed member of the District-Wide Security Committee under the SAVE Law.