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Bronx school just says no

New York Teacher
4 womae pose outside of a school building with signs that say "Stop the Smoke"
Jonathan Fickies

Teacher Yajaira Eduardo (second from left) joins parents (from left) Harriet Matthews, Diana Perez and Mary Coronel outside PS 28 in the Bronx, where new gates can be locked after school hours to keep drug users out.

Until recently, according to parents and educators, drug users would smoke crack and hang out at the front entrance of PS 28 in the Mount Hope section of the Bronx. In the morning, the school was choked by fumes and students and staff would have to step around drug paraphernalia as they entered the building.

“It was happening at all hours of school operation, during arrival, during dismissal,” said fourth-year educator Brian Pierre.

The problems predated his arrival at the 3k-to-5th-grade school two years ago, and he said many in the school community were convinced conditions could not be improved.

“I think a lot of people felt no voice would be heard; that it’s a forgotten community,” he said.

Drawing on the expertise of veteran UFT organizer Betty Zohar in December, a coalition of parents and teachers formed to prod the Police Department and local elected officials to, as their campaign put it, “Stop the Smoke at Mount Hope.”

The committee began meeting weekly on Zoom. Parent Association President Benjamin Richardson’s decision to join the committee infused it with “a sense of strength and togetherness,” said Pierre.

“Through him, we were able to garner more parents being involved,” Pierre said. “Then more people began feeling there’s a chance of their voices being heard.”

Diana Perez, the mother of twin 7-year-old boys who attend the school, said PS 28 had become an after-hours magnet for drug users in part because it’s a half-block from a methadone clinic. “Kids were seeing needles on the floor,” she said. “My kids would say, ‘Mommy, what’s that smell?’ ”

Complaints to the local police precinct initially went unheeded, but the parent-teacher coalition kept pressing. In a Dec. 23 letter, the committee demanded the removal of drug users from the vicinity of the school, asked police to monitor school exits at the start and conclusion of classes and urged the hiring of more school safety agents and a crossing guard.

With the help of elected officials, including Bronx Borough President Vanessa Gibson, the NYPD installed gates around the building that can be locked after school hours to keep intruders away. A crossing guard was hired in March.

PS 28 Chapter Leader Monica Hilton recalled how previously, when she drove to the school, addicts pounded on her window demanding money. “Now when I come in the morning, I don’t see the drug users,” she said. “It’s definitely appreciated, surprising and welcome.”

Richardson, the Parent Association president whose three children attend the school, said he was “totally satisfied” with what the collaboration had produced so far.

Zohar, the UFT’s community liaison, said the results achieved by committee members reinforced an old lesson: “When parents and educators work together to tackle an issue, they can move mountains.”