School safety

The fatal stabbing in a Bronx classroom was horrific — but also extremely rare

PHOTO: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office
Mayor Bill de Blasio, flanked by police Commissioner James O'Neill and Chancellor Carmen Fariña held a press conference on school safety at M.S. 88 in Brooklyn in August.

The fatal stabbing at a Bronx school Wednesday comes amid continuing debate over school safety and the use of metal detectors in schools — but also as serious crimes in schools are at near-record lows.

Details about the incident at the Urban Assembly School for Wildlife Conservation are still coming in, but city officials have confirmed that two teenage students were stabbed during a history class, one fatally, by a classmate wielding a switchblade.

The incident is extremely rare: One student has not killed another inside a school for more than two decades, officials said. And though Wednesday’s events have put some families on edge, they come in the context of a wider downturn in crime inside schools and citywide.

The number of major crimes committed in schools — from murder to grand larceny — are at their lowest levels since the city began keeping track in 1998. Arrests, summonses, and suspensions have also fallen in recent years.

Less than two months ago, Mayor Bill de Blasio highlighted those trends at a press conference declaring last school year “the safest year on record.” At a briefing Wednesday, he noted that it had been “many, many years” since a student was killed inside a school.

The last time a student was killed at the hands of another student inside a school building appeared to be in 1993, when a 15-year-old student fatally stabbed another 15-year-old boy in the crowded hallway of a Manhattan junior high school. (In 2014, a 14-year-old boy stabbed another boy to death outside I.S. 117 in the Bronx.)

Still, the mayor’s critics have painted a different picture of overall school safety, relying on state data and other statistics that show more weapons are being recovered from city schools. Last school year, 1,429 weapons were recovered, according to police data, up from 1,073 the year before. De Blasio said last month that the increase could indicate greater vigilance from school personnel and police as opposed to a less safe environment.

Wednesday’s episode may also complicate the debate about the city’s deployment of metal detectors in school buildings. The building did not have a metal detector, and a police official said in a briefing that there was “no question” the knife used in the attack would have been caught during screening.

After rushing back to school to pick up their children, parents at the School for Wildlife Conservation reportedly began calling for the city to set up metal detectors. De Blasio said temporary metal detectors would be brought into the school on Thursday.

Police Chief Joanne Jaffe, who oversees the community affairs bureau, said it had previously been determined that the school did not require metal detectors, but now, “We’ll review that and take a look at that.”

Some advocates have argued metal detectors make students feel like criminals and “normalized the idea of getting shot or stabbed” as one student put it. Black and Hispanic students are more likely to have to pass through metal detectors, a WNYC analysis found.

Eighty-eight buildings currently have metal detectors, education department spokeswoman Toya Holness said. The city conducts annual reviews to determine if scanners are needed, and principals can also request that they be added or removed.

Last year, schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña acknowledged advocates’ concerns about the use of scanners, but said they had to be weighed against students’ safety.

“You want to make sure that when you remove something,” she said, “that the school stays as safe.”

Correction: Based on information from city officials, an earlier version of this story cited a fatal stabbing at a Brooklyn high school in 1992 as the last time one student killed another inside a New York City. However, as the story now notes, another student was fatally stabbed inside a school later that academic year, in 1993.

First Person

With roots in Cuba and Spain, Newark student came to America to ‘shine bright’

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Layla Gonzalez

This is my story of how we came to America and why.

I am from Mallorca, Spain. I am also from Cuba, because of my dad. My dad is from Cuba and my grandmother, grandfather, uncle, aunt, and so on. That is what makes our family special — we are different.

We came to America when my sister and I were little girls. My sister was three and I was one.

The first reason why we came here to America was for a better life. My parents wanted to raise us in a better place. We also came for better jobs and better pay so we can keep this family together.

We also came here to have more opportunities — they do call this country the “Land Of Opportunities.” We came to make our dreams come true.

In addition, my family and I came to America for adventure. We came to discover new things, to be ourselves, and to be free.

Moreover, we also came here to learn new things like English. When we came here we didn’t know any English at all. It was really hard to learn a language that we didn’t know, but we learned.

Thank God that my sister and I learned quickly so we can go to school. I had a lot of fun learning and throughout the years we do learn something new each day. My sister and I got smarter and smarter and we made our family proud.

When my sister Amira and I first walked into Hawkins Street School I had the feeling that we were going to be well taught.

We have always been taught by the best even when we don’t realize. Like in the times when we think we are in trouble because our parents are mad. Well we are not in trouble, they are just trying to teach us something so that we don’t make the same mistake.

And that is why we are here to learn something new each day.

Sometimes I feel like I belong here and that I will be alright. Because this is the land where you can feel free to trust your first instinct and to be who you want to be and smile bright and look up and say, “Thank you.”

As you can see, this is why we came to America and why we can shine bright.

Layla Gonzalez is a fourth-grader at Hawkins Street School. This essay is adapted from “The Hispanic American Dreams of Hawkins Street School,” a self-published book by the school’s students and staff that was compiled by teacher Ana Couto.

First Person

From ‘abandoned’ to ‘blessed,’ Newark teacher sees herself in her students

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Jennifer Palumbo

As I sit down to write about my journey to the USA, all I can think of is the word “blessed.”

You see my story to become Ms. Palumbo started as a whole other person with a different name in a different country. I was born in Bogota, Colombia, but my parents either could not keep me or did not want me. I was, according to my adoption papers, “abandoned.” Abandoned is defined as “having been deserted or cast off.” Not a great start to my story, I know.

Well I was then put in an orphanage for children who had no family. Yes at this point I had no family, no home, not even a name.
I spent the first 10 months of my life in this orphanage. Most children at 10 months are crawling, trying to talk, holding their bottles, and some are even walking. Since I spent 10 months laying in a crib, I did none of those things.

Despite that my day to be chosen arrived. I was adopted by an Italian American couple who, after walking up and down rows of babies and children, chose to adopt me. My title just changed from abandoned to chosen.

But that wasn’t the only thing about to change. My first baby passport to leave Colombia is with the name given by the orphanage to an abandoned baby girl with no one. When I arrived in America my parents changed that name to Jennifer Marie Palumbo and began my citizenship and naturalization paperwork so I could become an U.S. citizen.

They tried to make a little Colombian girl an Italian American, so I was raised speaking only English. Eating lots of pasta and living a typical American lifestyle. But as I grew up I knew there was something more — I was something more.

By fourth grade, I gravitated to the Spanish girls that moved into town and spent many after-schools and sleepovers looking to understand who I was. I began to learn how to dance to Spanish music and eat Spanish foods.

I would try to speak and understand the language the best I could even though I could not use it at home. In middle school, high school, and three semesters at Kean University, I studied Spanish. I traveled to Puerto Rico, Mexico, and Honduras to explore Spanish culture and language. I finally felt like the missing piece of my puzzle was filled.

And then the opportunity to come to Hawkins Street School came and as what — a bilingual second-grade teacher. I understood these students in a way that is hard to explain.

They are like me but in a way backwards.

They are fluent in Spanish and hungry to obtain fluency in English to succeed in the world. I was fluent in English with a hunger to obtain it in Spanish to succeed in the world. I feel as a child I lost out.

My road until now has by far not been an easy one, but I am a blessed educated Hispanic American. I know that my road is not over. There are so many places to see, so many food to taste, and so many songs to dance too.

I thank my students over the past four years for being such a big part of this little “abandoned” baby who became a “chosen” child grown into a “blessed teacher.” They fill my heart and I will always be here to help them have a blessed story because the stars are in their reach no matter what language barrier is there.

We can break through!

Palumbo is a second-grade bilingual teacher Hawkins Street School. This essay is from “The Hispanic American Dreams of Hawkins Street School,” a self-published book by the school’s students and staff that was compiled by teacher Ana Couto.