Author Topic: A Principal Is Accused of Being a Communist, Rattling a Brooklyn School  (Read 1733 times)

Offline imchills

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It was early March when a representative from the New York City Department of Education’s Office of Special Investigations sat down with Jill Bloomberg, the longtime principal of Park Slope Collegiate in Brooklyn, a combined middle and high school, to inform her that she was under investigation.

The representative told Ms. Bloomberg that she could not tell her the nature of any allegations, nor who had made them, but said that she would need to interview Ms. Bloomberg’s staff.

Then one of her assistant principals, who had met with an investigator, revealed to her exactly what the allegation was, one that seemed a throwback to another era: Communist organizing.

“I think I just said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me. This is something O.S.I. investigates?’” Ms. Bloomberg said, using an abbreviation for the Office of Special Investigations. “I mean, what decade are we living in?”

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But after the initial shock, she said she realized she had been waiting for something like this to happen for a long time.

Over the years, Ms. Bloomberg has become one of the most outspoken and visible critics of New York City’s public schools, regularly castigating the Education Department’s leadership at forums and in the news media. Most of her criticism is aimed at actions that she says perpetuate a segregated and unequal educational system and that penalize black and Latino students. Through the years, she has helped organize protests and assemblies to push for integration and equal resources and treatment for her almost entirely black and Latino student body.

Last Friday, Ms. Bloomberg filed a lawsuit against the school system saying it violated her rights under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which protects an individual’s civil rights and the right to free speech under the First Amendment. Ms. Bloomberg was seeking an injunction to stop the investigation until her lawsuit is resolved.

In filings with the court, the city denies her claim, saying the investigation is unrelated to her activism, but that Department of Education policies ban political organizing and fund-raising of any type during school hours or on school grounds.

The department “was obligated” to open an investigation “after allegations of misconduct were brought to its attention,” Nick Paolucci, a spokesman for the city’s Law Department, said in an email. “Based upon the facts and the evidence, we believe this lawsuit has no merit.”

According to a letter sent to Ms. Bloomberg’s lawyers from the general counsel for the Education Department, Ms. Bloomberg and two unnamed teachers at the school are accused of belonging to the Progressive Labor Party, a Communist organization. They are also accused of recruiting students and inviting them to participate in the party’s activities, including marches.

Ms. Bloomberg, 53, denies those allegations.

A diminutive woman whose students often tower over her, Ms. Bloomberg did not set out to become an activist against her employer. She started her career teaching in Chicago before coming to work in New York City’s schools. When she was named principal of Park Slope Collegiate in 2004 — at the time, it was one of three small high schools in the former John Jay High School building in Park Slope — she said she found a deeply neglected school with a leaky roof, toilets that overflowed, moldy walls and doors that would not open properly. The student body was being neglected as well, she said, with few of its graduates ready for the rigors of college.

But, she said, she did not think much about integration or equal resources at the time and focused on teaching.

“I taught Brown v. Board, I taught about this landmark case on integration in segregated schools, with no irony,” she said as she sat in her sparsely decorated office earlier this week. “We all just took for granted that there was something broken about the system and we have to do the best we can.”

But that changed in 2010, when she learned the education department wanted to open a new high school in her building to serve white middle- and upper-class families in the neighborhood who had shunned Park Slope Collegiate. City officials proposed creating a selective secondary school to be called Millennium Brooklyn High School as a sister school to the overwhelmingly white Millennium High School in Manhattan.

Ms. Bloomberg said she did not understand why the white parents in the neighborhood could not simply send their children to one of the existing high schools. She said she thought the district had an excellent opportunity to integrate this black and Latino high school with white students from Park Slope and neighborhoods nearby.

But department officials were adamant about creating the new high school, which would screen students for test scores and behavior. As an enticement, the department promised to fix up the dilapidated John Jay building if Millennium came in.

“That really did it,” Ms. Bloomberg said.

She had been begging, for years for money to fix up her school. “You mean there is money? They’ve been sitting on money or they can find money if it’s for white students?” Ms. Bloomberg recalled thinking. “This was too much. It was right in our faces. It became clear to the students: ‘You’re not good enough.’”

Ms. Bloomberg, parents and students at the school began to protest the new Millennium Brooklyn school. In the end, they lost, and the new Millennium went in.

But a fire had been lit. Over the years, Ms. Bloomberg supported her students in fighting the installation of metal detectors in their school, helped organize school assemblies to talk about police violence, and had spoken out passionately against segregation and what she considers racist Education Department policies.

Some teachers at Park Slope Collegiate disagreed with the assemblies and other protests that Ms. Bloomberg, who is extremely popular among her students and their parents — had supported and refused to participate.

Ms. Bloomberg has been admonished several times by her supervisors for speaking out, but never disciplined.

Then in January, Ms. Bloomberg sent an email to department officials accusing them of discriminating against the predominantly black and Latino schools at John Jay by allotting Millennium twice as many sports teams as the other schools. Not long after that, the investigator visited her school.

The inquiry has fractured the school community, evoking for some the era of McCarthyism in the 1950s when people were falsely accused of being Communists. Many teachers and staff believe that the accusations came from people inside the building, now split into Bloomberg supporters and those who stand with her accusers.

Rhonda Hendrickson teaches social studies at Park Slope Collegiate. She is a model teacher, a designation given to exemplary instructors. “I was shocked by the accusations,” she said. “I think this investigation has unearthed an undercurrent of division and now people are taking sides.”

Ms. Hendrickson said there was now a sense of distrust at staff meetings. When the allegations first came out, Ms. Hendrickson was teaching a unit on the Cold War and a student asked her a question about communism as a form of government. “I felt caught, should I answer? How should I answer? I can’t even teach it because I am scared,” she said. “I felt like I was in some type of twilight zone because we teach this as something that happened in the past, but that we’re smarter than that now.”

Ms. Hendrickson said she had never seen any signs of communist or other political activity at the school, but that some teachers were uncomfortable with Ms. Bloomberg’s efforts to fight racism.

A small number of staff members, who would speak only on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, said the allegations against Ms. Bloomberg might be justified. They point to posts on the Progressive Labor Party website that claim students have joined a study group sponsored by the party, which is “using this struggle as a school to build communist ideas and raise class consciousness.”

Ms. Bloomberg denies any knowledge of organizing efforts for the Progressive Labor Party at the school. She said she could not control what groups other school workers or parents might belong to. She also said all events at Park Slope Collegiate were organized by the school and not by any outside organization.

Nathan Maybloom, a gym teacher, said Ms. Bloomberg created the atmosphere of fear by revealing to her staff the nature of an investigation that was supposed to be confidential. The investigation should go forward, he said. “When O.S.I. comes in, they are not usually coming in for a small little thing,” he said.

Mr. Maybloom said some teachers did not support Ms. Bloomberg but were afraid to speak out. He said some staff members believed that Colleen Siegel, the chairwoman for the teachers union chapter at the school, was one of the people who complained about Ms. Bloomberg to school officials and that there was now an effort to force her from her union position.

Ms. Siegel would not say whether she was one of the accusers, but said she had been elected chapter chairwoman twice and no one had tried to remove her until now. She said the investigation was not about “anything other than allegations of political organizing in public schools, and if there has been political organizing, that is a violation of the public trust and the public needs to know.”

In Federal District Court in Manhattan on Monday, Ms. Bloomberg’s lawyers argued that the atmosphere of division and fear from a baseless accusation was reason for a federal judge to order the city’s education department to halt the investigation.

So many teachers, parents, former and current students filed into the courtroom to support Ms. Bloomberg that Judge Paul G. Gardephe invited the dozens standing along the walls to take seats in the jurors’ box and in chairs near the lawyers’ tables.

On Wednesday, Judge Gardephe declined to issue an injunction, saying that Ms. Bloomberg had not proved in the preliminary hearing that her rights were being violated, that the investigation had a chilling effect on her free speech or that of other workers at the school.

Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, found the McCarthy-era echoes of the investigation shocking. “The use of that language just sounded the alarm,” she said, adding that the city was walking a fine line in trying to parse what it considered political activity. “Teachers and principals don’t check their rights at the schoolhouse door.”

Offline Reginald Hudlin

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Communist is often used as a code word for "looking out for poor people".