This is a long one so get comfortable before you start to read.
NEW ROCHELLE, NY -- On January 11th, Schools Superintendent Dr. Brian Osborne and New Rochelle High School Principal Reggie Richardson stood before dozens of journalists gathered in the City Hall Rotunda and flat out lied to cover up their complicity in the fatal stabbing death of a young woman in their care.
Osborne said “the practice of New Rochelle High School is that students are allowed to leave campus during lunch periods and free periods. Hundreds of students come and go at different times of the day on a daily basis and this has been the practice for many years.”
Richardson, asked how long this practice had gone on, said, “many, many years before actually I even arrived as principal. So for many, many years.”
Richardson later said he inherited an open campus policy and continued that policy.
At least two school board members have recently called into question Osborne’s revisionist history. A third abruptly resigned a week ago for “personal reasons” which sources tell Talk of the Sound related to her unhappiness with Osborne’s conduct over the past year with recent events being the proverbial “final straw”.
As Talk of the Sound has previously reported, the “practice” of allowing students to leave campus at ANY time during the school day — not just for lunch or free periods — began on a specific day about two years ago while Osborne and Richardson were in their respective current positions.
The “practice” was a deliberate decision as part of a broader effort to reduce minority suspensions in the wake of an adverse finding by the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights. The OCR had cited the District for issuing too many suspensions of African-American/Black and Special Education students. In response, a special committee was formed to make recommendations on the implementation of “Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports” or “PBIS” into school disciplinary policy. A PBIS-based Code of Conduct was adopted by the New Rochelle Board of Education in the summer of 2016.
That is what happened two years ago that led to the opening of the flood gates.
To understand what went wrong a brief primer on PBIS is required.
PBIS.org says “The broad purpose of PBIS is to improve the effectiveness, efficiency and equity of schools and other agencies. PBIS improves social, emotional and academic outcomes for all students, including students with disabilities and students from underrepresented groups.”
“Attention is focused on creating and sustaining primary (tier 1: school-wide), secondary (tier 2: small group), and tertiary (tier 3: individual) systems of support that improve lifestyle results (personal, health, social, family, work, recreation) for all children and youth by making problem behavior less effective, efficient, and relevant, and desired behavior more functional.”
The Code of Conduct describes intervention and consequences for violations occurring on all three tiers.
Tier One is where “School-wide behavioral expectations are explicitly taught, reinforced, and acknowledged by school staff” through “expectations, signage, school-wide recognition, social-emotional skills teaching”.
Tier Two, for students who do not get the message and do get in trouble, states that “targeted students receive additional instruction or support so that they are able to meet the behavioral expectations. (short term interventions are provided—socialization groups, check-in and check-out programs)” and “social-skills groups, daily check-in with adult, classroom behavior interventions”.
Tier Three is the ultimate level where “intensive interventions are provided to students who are not able to achieve the expected behaviors with Tier One and Two interventions” which calls for “individualized interventions for high-risk behaviors”. Still getting in trouble despite all the interventions, these students would be subject to suspensions.
As is clear from the PBIS.org website, PBIS requires tremendous, consistent effort by District employees.
Richardson and Osborne came up with an easier solution: lax enforcement where many Code of Conduct violations such as loitering in hallways, drug use, weapons possession, physical altercations, and leaving school grounds were largely if not completely ignored. Students were not placed on Tier 2. Not surprisingly, the goal was achieved as students rarely reached Tier 3 and minority suspensions were reduced.
The committee completed their work about two years ago. There was a brief public hearing in June 2016 and in July 2016 the school board adopted a PBIS-infused Code of Conduct. The hearing was primarily a presentation by members of the "Solutions to Suspensions Committee" on the "Completely Revised Code of Conduct".
HEARING VIDEO June 21, 2016 Board of Education Special Meeting Public Hearing on the Proposed Amended 2016-2017 Code of Conduct
Assistant Superintendent Diane Massimo introduced Co-Chair Director of Pupil Services Rhonda Jones, and Co-Chair Ellen Garcia, a security and safety consultant for the District, along with Director of Special Education Yvette Goorevitch and New Rochelle High School Principal Reggie Richardson. Massimo and Goorevitch retired from the District on June 30, 2017.
They reported that the Code of Conduct was revised to reduce out of school suspensions and provide students with restorative practices and support. The goal was to reduce violence in the school community and reduce substance abuse.
Richardson said the foundation of the District's approach to school discipline was Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports (PBIS) with the goal to have age appropriate consequences for inappropriate actions.
Ellen Garcia described PBIS as a move away from "zero tolerance" which was influenced by the "War on Drugs" and the 1994 Gun Free School Act. Garcia was originally hired as a Grant Administrator for a Safe Schools / Healthy Schools grant which ended in November 2013. She recounted how after the Columbine shooting in 1999, New York State passed the SAVE Act. The current Code of Conduct was adopted in 2001 based on the SAVE Act. The Code of Conduct was revised three times, most recently in 2012 to align the Code of Conduct with the Dignity for All Students Act (DASA).
Garcia said the current trend was to move away from zero tolerance to restorative justice. She cited A Call to Action for a Better Approach to School Discipline in Westchester Schools: Solutions Not Suspensions by Student Advocacy made public in November 2013.
In November 2013, the District formed a Solutions to Suspensions Committee. In September 2014, the Committee was expanded to include parents, community representatives, the New Rochelle Youth Bureau, the SEPTA PTA, and the Westchester County Mental Health. In October 2015, a subcommittee was formed to work on a revised Code of Conduct. At about the same time, the New York State Assembly considered a Bill regarding public school Codes of Conduct and in June 2016, the same month as the hearing, the bill came out of committee. She said the work representative a cultural shift from negative to restorative practices.
Richardson said a review of suspension data showed an apparent disproportionate number of suspensions for Students with Disabilities and African-American/Black Students. There was a concern about the loss of instructional time for those students. Goorevitch said there was concern with disproportional disciplinary action of children with Disabilities from 2014 to 2015. A review looking at quality factors found no non-compliance and that no corrective action was required.
Richardson explained the PBIS Pyramid where Tier 1 Interventions should reach 75-80% of students by establishing expectations school wide and in the classroom, Tier 2 should reach 10-20% of students and entail more support, classroom or teacher referrals and meeting with parents, Tier 3 should reach 3-5% of students who would need more intensive supports, including outside partners, to support students and families.
There were three documents made public at the meeting:
- Draft of Code of Conduct revision 1 6 21 16.pdf
- Code of Conduct_Final Full_English_ReprintedAug2015.pdf
School board members asked a half-dozen questions. Richardson told a story meant to be heartwarming about a student who misbehaved but was restored with a bowl of cereal. No speakers signed up in advance. Three speakers did rise to speak. Laraine Karl said she was upset about the story of the high school student who did not eat breakfast before arriving in school, Amy Moselhi, now a school board member, said she was concerned about disproportional suspensions and felt the story about the student and the bowl of cereal showed the need to address major systemic problems in District; that PBIS was nothing more than a Band-aid if core issues in the District were not addressed. Kim Benedict requested that Lunch Monitors be trained in PBIS.
Proving the old adage “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”, the result of this well-meaning but poorly implemented policy was utter chaos.
Based on recent Violent and Disruptive Incident Reports filed with the New York State Education Department, population adjusted for selected Westchester County School Districts, New Rochelle High School is now one of the most violent high schools in Westchester County.
- VADIR INCIDENTS 2016-17
- 5 YEAR % CHANGE IN VADIR INCIDENTS 2012-2017
- VADIR INCIDENTS 2016-17 DATA TABLE
What makes the lies of both Osborne and Richardson especially pernicious is the context. They were addressed to the question of why Valaree Schwab, a 16-year old MURDER VICTIM, was at the Dunkin’ Donuts on North Avenue and Mayflower Avenue when she was murdered. Osborne prefaced his lies about a so-called “open campus practice” as part of a statement to the press that Valaree Schwab was not in school that day, that the incident took place off campus AND that there was a supposed “open campus practice”. What Osborne and Richardson left out is that Z’inah Brown and the group of students who (allegedly) hunted down and killed Valaree Schwab WERE in school that day and under Board Policy 5520 should not have been out of school stalking their victim while on their lunch break.
Osborne and Richardson were insubordinate to the popularly elected school board, acting in direct violation of long-standing “Board Policy 5520 Closed Campus”. This insubordination is not merely “a problem” as one board member put it but a fireable offense.
The two administrators took shortcuts in an effort to reduce minority suspensions by the easiest possible route: not enforcing the Code of Conduct over the past two years, and now a girl entrusted to their care is dead.
Osborne, Richardson and the entire school board knew all this and failed to act to prevent a foreseeable tragedy. At a recent Albert Leonard Middle School PTA meeting, school board member Amy Moselhi acknowledged the board’s policy committee recently discussed the conflict between the practice under Osborne and Richardson, and the long-stated policy but failed to act. No explanation was offered why the entire District leadership waited until the third violent incident in 8 days to close the high school campus 9 days after a student was repeatedly stabbed to death by a classmate, egged on by other classmates.
These people all have blood on their hands and no amount of #NewRoStrong t-shirts will wash that away.
On January 10th, Valaree Schwab was at the McDonald's on North Avenue, two blocks from New Rochelle High School where she was a Junior on an advanced academic track. A private investigator hired by her family to piece together the events of that day, says a group of students robbed Valaree, then later grabbed her by the hair and slammed her to the ground. She left the McDonald's and went to the Subway restaurant down the street. The same group of teens, he says, went looking for her.
Surveillance video provided to Talk of the Sound by Kevin McKeown of Metropolitan Investigative Group LLC, shows a group of teens walking quickly past the entrance of the Subway, catching sight of Valaree Schwab seated inside, doubling back, entering the store and confronting her. The store manager says he told the unruly teens to leave the store. Unbeknownst to Schwab, though they left the store they did not leave the area. A half hour later she encountered the same group of students at the nearby Dunkin’ Donuts where she was stabbed twice, once through the heart and once through the lung. She died soon after at Jacobi Medical Center in the Bronx.
As paramedics and doctors fought unsuccessfully to save Valaree’s life, Schools Superintendent Dr. Brian Osborne was preparing a cleverly crafted press release designed to distance Osborne, Richardson and New Rochelle Board of Education President Rachel Relkin, along with her fellow board members, from culpability in Valaree Schwab’s death.
The City School District of New Rochelle is saddened by the incident on North Avenue today in which a New Rochelle High School student was stabbed. The student was not in school today and the incident did not happen on school grounds.
New Rochelle High School and School District officials are cooperating fully with the New Rochelle Police Department in this matter.
The High School and District will make counselors, social workers and other professionals available for students and staff who require assistance for as long as is necessary.
All other information about the incident should come from the New Rochelle Police Department.
The press release featured information from Valaree Schwab’s attendance records to claim she was not in school that day, notes the incident did not occur on the high school campus and is silent on the students involved in the robbery, assault and murder of Valaree Schwab.
While it may or may not be true that Schwab was not in school that day (similar records for Z’inah Brown, the student charged with murdering Valaree Schwab, likewise show she did not “swipe” into school that day but sources tell Talk of the Sound Brown was observed on school surveillance video at 10:30 a.m.) it is entirely irrelevant.
Valaree Schwab is the victim in this case. Her attendance record that day is immaterial to the murder; it does not explain or justify or warrant the fatal stabbing attack perpetrated against her. So why did Osborne feature this point in presenting his version of events and leave out the alleged perpetrators?
There is something noteworthy about Valaree Schwab’s attendance record (or any New Rochelle High School student’s attendance record). According to the Clerk of the New Rochelle Board of Education, an attendance record is a legally protected student record “within the meaning of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, 20 U.S.C. § 1232g and 34 C.F.R. Part 99”.
FERPA is to education what HIPPA is to medicine.
Such records are “exempt from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Law” and may not be disclosed. As a test, Talk of the Sound recently requested the same attendance records for the same day, January 10th, for three prominent students who names recently appeared in district press releases, newsletters and on social media. All three requests were denied on the grounds that it would be a violation of FERPA to release this information.
Information from Valaree Schwab’s attendance record was confidential by Federal statute yet was not only disclosed but published to the media in a press release and widely disseminated in subsequent news accounts. Asked at a recent board meeting to explain why making Valaree Schwab’s confidential records public did not constitute a FERPA violation, Osborne ignored the question and did not answer.
According to the United States Department of Education, the law requires schools to ask for written consent before disclosing a child's personally identifiable information to individuals other than parents or guardians or appropriate educational institutions such as if a student transfers schools. The school can release what is known as “directory information” such as name, email address, participation on sports teams or activities, or height and weight of sports team members,
At the press conference on January 11th, Brian Osborne and Reggie Richardson volunteered information contained in Valaree Schwab’s confidential attendance records while refusing to provide the exact same information for Z’inah Brown. They also refused to answer reporter’s questions about Schwab’s participation in officially recognized activities and sports or any honors or awards she may have received by referencing her privacy rights under FERPA.
Though the law does not allow schools to disclose attendance records, it does allow them to disclose “directory” information like activities, sports and honors or awards. Ironically, Richardson and Osborne refused to provide this information citing the same law they violated with regards to Schwab’s attendance records.
As the press conference ended, Osborne went even further, telling a City official to no apparent purpose that Valaree's mother was a drug addict and alcoholic and her father was an absentee guardian parent. Not only a FERPA violation but a gratuitous insult aimed at grieving parents who were preparing to bury their child. Osborne left the press conference, finished out the day and did not return to work until Tuesday. He had opted to take a personal day on Friday January 12th giving an extended break over the Martin Luther King holiday. His holiday plans were interrupted by the funeral of Valaree Schwab which he attended the following Monday. He returned to work on Tuesday. The next day there was the group assault of Bryan Stamps at Gemelli's Pizzera and the day after that Bryan Stamps was stabbing a fellow student in a classroom at New Rochelle High School.
In a similar manner, Assistant Superintendent Amy Goodman, speaking at a press conference held at Gemelli’s Pizzeria, the location of the second violent incident that made headlines, said the other students involved in the fatal stabbing of Valaree Schwab had been suspended. Information from disciplinary records including suspensions is also protected under FERPA.
Going back to the issue of “open” or “closed” campus, at the press conference, Osborne volunteered a statement on the question of an open or closed campus policy. As noted, he said it had been the practice for many years to allow students to leave the high school campus during lunch periods and free periods:
Due to several inquiries I would also like to add that while the incident happened off-campus and Valaree was absent and out of school yesterday the practice of New Rochelle High School is that students are allowed to leave campus during lunch periods and free periods. Hundreds of students come and go at different times of the day on a daily basis and this has been the practice for many years.
A reporter asked Osborne if he was reconsidering current practices:
In the wake of this we reconsider everything, revisit all of our efforts to provide for all of our students in all sorts of ways, insuring their social emotional health, safety, any policies and practices that we have that might need to change
We don’t have any particular so we don’t have any particular plans at this time but rest assured we will look at everything because of the severity of what happened.
Bob Marrone of WVOX asked Osborne about the Closed Campus policy that is on the books:
So, in the school district policy manual there are a number of policies that were last adopted in 1989. We are in the process of updating this and other outdated policies to bring them inline with current practice.
I asked Reggie Richardson what open or closed campus policy was on the books on the day Valaree was murdered.
Richardson said Osborne had already answered that question. Actually, he had not answered that question. Further, my question was directed to Richardson as building leader of the only school in the District subject to Board Policy 5520.
Richardson was then asked how long it had been been since 5520 was enforced.
Before responding, Osborne sidled up to Richardson and whispered to him. Richardson then said, “many, many years before actually I even arrived as principal. So for many, many years.”
These statements are not only knowingly false but never in the history of the school district has any such statement ever been made or any document or communication promulgated. The first time any New Rochelle school administrator ever uttered the words “open campus” in reference to any public school in the City School District of New Rochelle was at the press conference the day after Valaree’s murder.
To better understand the history of New Rochelle as an open or closed campus we spoke with a number of former students and administrators. While recollections maybe imperfect, the following account has emerged from these interviews and old newspaper articles.
New Rochelle was always a Closed Campus but the level of enforcement varied depending on the Principal. As a general rule, if you were caught off campus you could and often were given an in-house suspension and more than that for repeat offenders. There were a number of incidents and issues that created a growing sense of unease about misbehavior and violence involving New Rochelle High School students.
Matters came to a head at 4 a.m. on May 1, 1988 when Kevin Hynes, a New Rochelle High School student, was brutally murdered. He was struck with a baseball bat outside the Illusions nightclub. He died three days later. Charged in the murder was Vincent Schiliro, 21, of Mount Vernon and Frank V. Caporasa, 19, of Scarsdale. The community was shocked by the degree of violence, especially involving a young man with deep roots in the community.
Although the murder occurred at night in downtown New Rochelle and involved nothing directly related to the high school — other than the victim being a student at the high school — it became a factor in catalyzing the school board to take action, the culmination of a series of violent incidents, unlike the Hynes case, involving students on and around the school campus, including stabbing incidents. There was tremendous community pressure to take some sort of action before the death of Kevin Hynes which boiled over afterwards; this led to the resignation of New Rochelle High School Principal Steven Feldman and the school board formally adopting Policy 5520 to make New Rochelle High School a Closed Campus, this according to former school board members, administrators, and students. Feldman was replaced as Principal by Robert Kuklis who was replaced by Donald Baughman a few years later.
Talk of the Sound reached out to Robert Kuklis who was Principal of New Rochelle High School from 1988 to 1992 and asked him about the school board adopting a formal board policy to close the campus under Board Policy 5520.
“The Board took this step to decrease student tardiness and absence from class after lunch; also to prevent any disturbances in the community from students who had left the campus,” said Kuklis. “While some students continued to violate the policy, disciplinary actions were taken when they were caught. There was a reduction in students leaving the campus.”
Kuklis recommended we speak with his successor, Don Baughman, for further information.
“He was Assistant Principal during my tenure as Principal and then became the Principal for many years after that,” Kuklis added. “He has the best understanding of the open / closed campus policy over the years.”
We did just that.
Donald Baughman served in four positions over a 45 year career at New Rochelle High School from 1960 to 2006. He began his career as a History teacher. He went on to an administrative career first as Chairperson of the History Department, and then, in 1985, Assistant Principal and, in 1992, Principal. He retired as Principal in 2006.
Given his long tenure in key positions during critical times in the history of New Rochelle High School there are few people better qualified to speak to the history of the open campus / closed campus issue.
Baughman said in his time working at the high school, from 1960 to 2006, there was always a Closed Campus policy at New Rochelle High School but enforcement of the policy varied depending on the particular Principal in charge of the school. Some were more rigorous in their enforcement than others.
Baughman said the two Principals that proceeded him, Feldman and Kuklis did not aggressively enforce the Closed Campus policy so that despite the new board policy the campus was effectively “open”. Former students say they still received in-house suspensions under Feldman and Kuklis but not to the extent that occurred under Baughman who was viewed as “tough”.
Having served as Assistant Principal for both his predecessors, Baughman came to his building leadership role in 1992 determined to fully enforce the Closed Campus policy.
A number of factors played a role in that determination. First and foremost was the events leading up to and the aftermath of the Kevin Hynes murder and the new board policy. There were several high profile auto accidents involving students. There was the decision to move the entire 9th grade class to the high school in 1988 raising new safety concerns for the younger students. Prior to 1988, Albert Leonard and Isaac Young were Junior High Schools for grades 7 though 9. There were complaints from residents of the apartments on White Oak Street and Eastchester Road of students throwing trash all over their neighborhood.
"My first year as Principal it was an open campus and I determined to close the campus," said Baughman.
"I went on the P.A. to the kids and I said you have one week to get this campus cleaned up -- because they were throwing garbage and so forth when they left the school -- I said if you don't I will close this campus."
"Well the week passed and they didn't and I closed the campus," said Baughman.
Baughman said he made enforcement of a Closed Campus a point of emphasis in his first year at faculty and parent meetings.
He says he maintained a Closed Campus for the remainder of his tenure and his successor, Don Conetta, who had served under Baughman as his Assistant Principal, continued the Closed Campus policy until his retirement in 2013.
Asked to sum up the campus policy period between 1992 and 2013, Baughman was emphatic.
"Absolutely closed," he said.
Diane Massimo was Assistant Superintendent from 2001-13 and Associate Superintendent from 2013-17. She had direct responsibility for New Rochelle High School from 2001-2008 and again from 2013-2016.
We asked her about the practice of an “open campus” at New Rochelle High School in contravention of Board Policy 5520.
"I am not aware of any approved practice that was inconsistent with Board of Education policy," said Massimo.
Jeffrey Korostoff was the Assistant Superintendent from 1998-2013 (2014) and the Interim Superintendent of Schools from 2013-14 immediately prior to Osborne’s arrival. He held direct supervisory responsibility for New Rochelle High School from 2008-2013.
“Any suggestion that there was an approved practice of an open campus at New Rochelle High School is patently untrue,” Dr. Korostoff responded.
We reached out to former New Rochelle High School Principal Don Connetta who did not respond to voice mails. We also reached out to former Schools Superintendent Linda Kelly who is said to be traveling abroad. If we hear back from either of them we will update this article.
After Conetta retired in 2013, Reggie Richardson continued to enforce the Closed Campus policy. He made numerous efforts to enforce the Closed Campus policy during his first three years as Principal: locking the gates by the softball field, locking those gates and the middle gates between the sports fields, then locking the McKenna gate, then posting guards on the walkways, then posting mobile units inside Huguenot Park, sending security guards to the McDonald’s, even allowing only upperclassmen to leave, and others. There were disputes with the New Rochelle Fire Department over Richardson closing off egress points.
It was only in the past two years Richardson suddenly stopped; what had been a trickle of students sneaking off campus abruptly became a flood.
There is no one in New Rochelle who knows this more recent history better than this reporter. Not even close. I have had at least one of my kids at New Rochelle High School for the past 15 years including right now. My wife has worked as a special educator in the New Rochelle High School special education department for the last 8 years. I have lived in the immediate area of New Rochelle High School for the last 12 years. I can see the high school from my bedroom window. I am at or around the high school 7 days a week. I work from home and walk along Eastchester Road and North Avenue every day, to get coffee or lunch. I walk my dog several times a day through Huguenot Park and around the high school. All of the major school violence incidents in recent news accounts took place within 3 blocks of my home.
I was communicating with Richardson and New Rochelle High School Assistant Principal Joseph Starvaggi about safety issues since Richardson first got there (students were using the area directly behind my house as a hangout to smoke marijuana during the school day). I am also in regular contact with many dozens of teachers, staff, security guards, other SRPs, police officers and city officials.
I wrote a major article about it on October 3, 2017.
I published many photos and videos of students off-campus using drugs, involved in physical altercations or otherwise behaving badly. Twice I was harassed by students to the point I was compelled to call the police.
So when I report that Richardson enforced the Closed Campus policy over his first few years, I speak from direct experience; I discussed it with him and his staff many times and I am well acquainted with the various efforts that were made to lock certain gates, post guards at certain sidewalks, deploy mobile units in golf carts and so on. I have been on the District Wide Health & Safety Committee for two years with Joe Starvaggi. I have discussed this issue with many people in City Hall and with members of the committee.
I predicted often to anyone that would listen that a tragedy would occur, saying “a kid would be hit by a car or get their head slammed onto the pavement in a fight or get stabbed”. In an effort to get their attention I always added that the district would be sued as a result and the District would lose because the administration was knowingly letting students go off campus in direct contravention of board policy.
And no one listened over those two years which is why, after repeated warnings I would do so, I finally went public with my concerns three months before the murder of Valaree Schwab with the article above entitled “Enough is Enough”.
As a longtime resident with four children in and through the school system I know that although students did (and always have) left campus without permission that has nothing to do with what was happening over the past two years: not apples to oranges but apples to elephants. Where one might have seen two students here or three students there, in the past, it became a flood of students in wave after wave, a parade of students more than a quarter mile long, 500 or 600 students about 1/5th of the entire building population decamping to McDonald's, Chicken Joes and other restaurants on North Avenue. For those who romantically recall sneaking off campus when they were students and imagine this to be the issue now; what they recall bears no resemblance to the massive exodus of students that have been leaving the campus each day over the last two years.
And it did not go well. Verbal altercations escalating into physical altercations became a daily occurrence, along with rampant drug use, strong arm robberies, harassment, and assaults. In December 2017 alone, a retired New York Police officer reported being assaulted by a large group of students, a neighbor reported students jumping up and down on parked cars causing significant damage, two women reported rocks and ice being thrown at their car as they drove on North Avenue, a girl’s face was fractured by a boy in McDonald’s, a brawl by Jack’s Friendship Garden resulting in a bloody nose, a strong arm robbery on Webster Avenue and much more. This is just a single month and an abbreviated one at that due to the holidays.
At a recent Albert Leonard Middle School PTA Meeting, on Wednesday January 31st, three members of the school board took questions from parents: Todd Kern, Amy Moselhi and Paul Warhit. When asked about the role of the board when the Superintendent does not follow the rules, Warhit parroted the lies of Osborne and Richardson at the press conference.
“A conscious decision was made several years ago before Dr. Osborne came regarding a closed campus open campus,” said Warhit. “He was not involved”.
Towards the end of the meeting I asked the three board members where they were getting this false narrative that the practice at New Rochelle High School had been to have an “open campus” for many years.
Amy Moselhi said she objected to my bundling all board members together (my question did not state or imply that), saying it was “important not to conflate what's being said by a Superintendent to mean that it reflects every individual person on the board.” (my question did not do that either).
Having repudiated Osborne’s version of events she proceeded to distance herself from Warhit as well, saying flatly that she did not think the open campus practice predated Osborne.
“It is not my understanding that it happened a long time ago,” Moselhi said, contradicting the statements by Richardson and Osborne at the January 11th press conference.
“I tried to have conversations with as many teachers as I could get access to, and there is a pretty solid response patten which is that it was a trickle, people used to try to sneak out and when they came back in there would be some disciplinary action and there was some sort of really overnight watershed moment that happened in and about two years ago,” she said.
Moselhi said she spoke to an administration official who told her the watershed moment was “highly and directly related to the changing of the lunch period and when that structure changed from two half periods to full period it actually became no longer feasible to have a Closed Campus.”
Moselhi’s unnamed source told her the change in the lunch schedule “led to a situation where an open campus was the only plausible solution given also that our cafeteria is disgusting and there is no true access to food on campus.”
Whoever her source, what Moselhi was saying is that she had a senior level administrator directly contradicting Schools Superintendent Dr. Brian Osborne. That IS a problem.
After Moselhi finished her answer, Paul Warhit did a complete 180 saying “I tend to agree that that is probably what happened and I am curious to know why that change occurred. If it's just due to the lunch period...then why did we address right (sic) if it's not the lunch period its something else I'd like to know, was it Mr. Richardson's decision? Was it a lack of resources that we gave Mr. Richardson? Was Mr. Richardson instructed all (sic) and 10 other possibilities. I think it's a valid question and I think we should get an answer.”
Todd Kern said he had nothing to add noting he “didn't even know this was a thing at all” until his daughter entered the high school a year and a half ago. “I don't feel like I have a good answer to that.”
All three said they “appreciated” my question but none, apparently, appreciated my question enough to actually answer it; they never did say where they were getting the false information that the open campus practice began many years ago.
A parent asked a follow up question about the lunch schedule. Moselhi replied, explaining how she had discussed the change in lunch schedule with Dr. Osborne and how it worked. Moselhi went on at length about her discussion about this with Dr. Osborne before concluding:
“I definitely think this circles back to a management issue and it circles back to us to hold the Superintendent accountable and he needs to go into his pool of experts and come back with a reason, the best reason I could get out of Dr. Osborne was lunch, if its absolutely not true then we need to get to the bottom of that and that is the story and we need to live in a City where we can admit to our faults.”
This is a truly shocking admission: her “secret source” for the private contradictions with Osborne’s public statements was...Osborne!
From this we now know, Brian Osborne publicly stated, and instructed others like Warhit and Richardson to state, that the practice of an open campus began many years ago while privately admitting to Moselhi that it began two years ago due, supposedly, to a change in the lunch schedule.
Currently, the three lunch periods are 48 minutes long: 10:51 a.m. to 11:39 a.m.;11:43 a.m. to 12:31 p.m. and 12:35 p.m. to 1:23 p.m. My daughter has been a student at New Rochelle High School for the past three years. Her lunch period at the high school has always been a full 48 minute period. Whatever change Moselhi is referencing happened prior to September 2015. Not two years ago.
So, what to make of all this?
Board members know Osborne’s statements at the press conference were lies and yet they continue to defend him and cover up for him. He has said to at least one board member what we have always reported: the flood gates opened about two years ago under Richardson and Osborne not as part of some distant, hazy legacy passed down from their predecessors.
The claim that the watershed moment was due to a change in the lunch schedule, ludicrous on its face, is just another lie Osborne used to convince board members to tell a new lie even when that lie contradicted the original lie.
The “thing” that changed two years ago wasn’t the lunch schedule. It was pressure to magically reduce minority suspensions.
Like past “pressure” to improve ELA and Math scores at Isaac E. Young Middle School or bullying at all schools or to reduce violent and disruptive incident (VADIR) statistics or to increase minority graduation rates at New Rochelle High School, the goals are always "met" through chicanery and fraud (e.g. middle school math scores that showed massive increases so large the math department chair could not even calculate their growth rate, all staff get Olweus anti-bullying training so they are all far more sensitized to bullying incidents yet the number of incidents goes down not up as would be expected, minority graduation rates rocket upward overnight despite increased requirements to earn a diploma, etc.)
With a goal like “reducing minority suspensions” through implementation of PBIS, administrators are left with two options: (1) radically alter the school culture and union contract so every employee works really hard all the time on PBIS; (2) stop suspending students.
Human nature being what it is, Richardson and Osborne went for Option 2 and to no one’s surprise, minority suspensions “declined”.
Administrators stopped citing students for violations like lingering in hallways, using phones in hallways, having sex in the schools, wearing hats in school, possessing or using drugs in the school, being up to 15 minutes late for class, cutting class and more. As for leaving campus — and not just for lunch/free but any time (I have often see 10-20 kids doing drugs by the bridge at 9:30 a.m.) — the security guards were already not allowed to put their hands on a student so once students realized they would not get in trouble for leaving school grounds they simply walked past the guards. On many occasions, I observed a security guard telling students “turn around”. The students would ignore the guard altogether or laugh or curse at them as they walked past.
The straw that broke the camel's back was when a security officer was chewed out for not preventing students from leaving campus. The next day he collected over 100 names of students who left campus and turned in the list. NO ACTION was taken. That is Moselhi’s watershed moment, it was the moment school security “gave up” enforcement and the dam burst.
Security guards told me many times “why bother enforcing the rules, the administrators do not back us up”.
Vera Cheek, a widely respected former house principal, spoke at the community forum at New Rochelle High School on this topic on January 23rd. She described how she would suspend a student and the parents would go to the principal and he would reverse her decision.
Just think about the effect on morale where everyone knows you can get a suspension reversed if mom or dad complains to the Principal.
Martin Daly, the President of F.U.S.E. which represents District faculty and service related professions, wrote an unprecedented letter sent to the entire union membership after Valaree Schwab’s murder saying that the union’s building unit at New Rochelle High School had been complaining for years about how Reggie Richardson’s failure to enforce the rules had led to chaos.
Daly disclosed that the union's building unit, which represents all of the full-time teachers and staff at New Rochelle High School complained for years that the school was out of control. They were ignored by building leadership which includes New Rochelle High School Principal Reggie Richardson and Assistant Principal Joseph Starvaggi.
Daly said that the faculty and staff repeatedly raised their concerns about "a general breakdown in student conduct" and "lax enforcement of attendance and lateness policies" but were ignored by Richardson.
Daly specifically raised Richardson’s failure to enforce New Rochelle Board of Education Policy 5520: Closed Campus.
It has never been the policy at any public school in the City School District of New Rochelle to allow students to leave school grounds in the middle of the school day without explicit permission to do so.
Current Board Policy 5520 on a Closed Campus at the high school clearly states the current and longstanding District policy. Students may not leave the campus from when they arrive at school in the morning until dismissal at the end of their school day.
The Board of Education acknowledges that most of its secondary school students are responsible young persons who, not only value the educational opportunities provided them, but who respect the rights and property of others, and generally observe all the rules and regulations pertaining to students.
However, it is the responsibility of the Board of Education to provide for the care and physical well‑being of the students of the school district from the time they arrive at school for their first period class until they are dismissed at the end of the school day. Therefore, it is imperative that the school district be able to provide constant and appropriate supervision of all its students during the entire school day.
Because of the school district's inability to control events that occur off‑campus, New Rochelle High School students are required to adhere to the regulation of remaining on school grounds from their arrival at school until they are dismissed after their last class of instruction each school day. Students who violate this policy will be subject to disciplinary action in accordance with the Superintendent's Regulations and Administrative procedures.
At the January 11th, press conference, it was claimed that 5520 was an archaic "outdated" policy, adopted by the school board in 1989 and that all board policies were currently under review.
In fact, the Closed Campus policy is infused into every other important school policy document including the Code of Conduct, the Parent-Student Handbook and the School Safety Plan. There were hearings on these documents as recently as June, 2016 during which time Osborne and Richardson were in their current positions.
Page 31 - Designated Areas
Students may use corridors to go to the library, media center, computer labs, cafeteria, or House 3 concourse area. Classroom corridors are closed to all students during instructional periods. NO ONE may leave the campus during school hours without receiving an official dismissal from the House Office.
Page 13 VII. Prohibited Conduct
Students may be subject to disciplinary action if they: Engage in conduct that is insubordinate; leaving school without permission
APPROVE RESOLUTION NO. 17-55: ACCEPTING THE ANNUAL REVIEW OF THE CODE OF CONDUCT AND AUTHORIZING ITS CONTINUANCE, CONFORMING TO THE INDIVIDUALS WITH DISABILITIES IN EDUCATION ACT
WHEREAS, the City School District of the City of New Rochelle, New York, has conducted an annual review of the Code of Conduct, as initially adopted by the Board in June 2001 and revised in October, 2003; August, 2006; October, 2010; September, 2012; and July, 2016; now, therefore, be it
RESOLVED, that the Board of Education be and hereby authorizes the continuation in force of the Code of Conduct, as amended in July, 2016; and, be it further
RESOLVED, that this resolution shall take effect immediately.
These documents all state that students cannot leave the high school campus during the school day. The Code of Conduct was adopted in 2001 and updated in 2004, 2007, 2012 and 2016. Each time the board reaffirmed its desire for a Closed Campus policy at New Rochelle High School.
Most importantly, most every protocol in the School Safety Plan is predicated on a Closed Campus.
For example, the protocol on how to respond to a “dangerous person in the area of the school” — the exact scenario that existed the day Valaree Schwab was fatally stabbed — begins with making a Public Address announcement of a lockout and for students outside the building to come inside immediately. The P.A. speakers, on the occasions where they are working properly, cannot be heard at McDonald’s. As a result, in the event of a lockout there will be hundreds of students making their way back to campus, banging on doors to get back in, unaware of why the doors are locked and that the reason is the threat of a dangerous person out there with them.
In the case of Z’inah Brown, the Safety Plan was not followed. The school was not put in lockout. As a result, having just stabbed a girl in the heart 15 minutes earlier she re-entered the building and then later became a fugitive over the next 24 hours.
At a teachers meeting the next day, high school teachers asked why the school was not put on lockout as required in the School Safety Plan. Assistant Principal Starvaggi said the police department said it was not necessary. This claim was reminiscent of a similar claim by Starvaggi in 2013 that a firefighter he could not identify told him not to evacuate two wheel-chair bound students with Cerebral Palsy during a gas leak at the high school. In that case, the District sued (unsuccessfully) the New Rochelle Fire Department to blame them for the District’s own failures in a Federal lawsuit arising out of a U.S. Department of Justice investigation and lawsuit where the District admitted to various major safety violations and plead guilty.
Learning that Starvaggi was now blaming the New Rochelle Police Department for the failure to go into lockout at the school, Acting Police Commissioner Joseph Schaller initiated an immediate, same day investigation of NRPD which concluded that there had been no communication at all between police and school officials about a lockout. The City demanded that Osborne get a name of a police officer from Starvaggi; no such name was provided.
In a stabbing incident like the one which occurred in the high school on January 18th, the first step in the School Safety Plan is common sense, “Call 911”. Yet no one at the high school called 911 for a full fifteen minutes. Had the police been called immediately there is a chance the perpetrator would have been spotted leaving the scene and taken into custody. Instead, the student was able to escape and has still not been captured for what is going on three weeks. Students are still cooped up in the high school each day out of fear the suspect will return to the high school and stab someone else.
In the moments immediately after the school was placed on lockout, Assistant Principal Starvaggi broadcast a message to security staff explaining what a lockout meant: No one in or out of the building. Despite this a security guard posted at the Embassy door complained that there were people banging on the doors to get into the building and she did not know what to do. A security officer told her she had received her instructions: No one in or out of the building. The guard opened the door and let people in and out of the building and continued to do this over the next hour.
In unilaterally choosing not to enforce the Closed Campus policy, Osborne and Richardson gutted all related policies and protocols which are predicated on a Closed Campus.
The voters of New Rochelle elect, as their representatives, members of the school board who, in turn, adopt board policies which govern all students and district personnel. No employee regardless of title has the authority to disregard or supersede a school board policy, the will of the people of the community, as a matter of policy or practice.
Yet, that is what has occurred here with the foreseeable result of the tragedy that can occur when 500 or more unsupervised teens exit the school campus en masse. The same sort of tragedy one might expect in any other community in Westchester when you drop 500 teenagers, unsupervised, into a neighborhood.
Now a girl is dead, another student stabbed, still another facing a felony warrant, still another facing a Second Degree Murder charge and up to a dozen or more facing related criminal charges.
The time has come for the end of the lies, the liars and those who willingly spread the liars' lies.
If the District wants to even begin to repair trust with the community, it needs to start by coming clean about when the “open campus” practice began, who authorized the change and who is now being held accountable for the result - the brutal, violent death of a young woman.