By Jordan Heller
LOWER MANHATTAN — Pandemonium ensued Monday evening at a New York City public school policy meeting when parents concerned about a shocking drop in test scores erupted into protest after being prohibited from taking part in the discussion.
The Panel for Educational Policy (PEP) meeting, held at Murray Bergtraum High School in lower Manhattan, came less than three weeks after the news that proficiency in English and math for the city's 3rd through 8th graders dropped a whopping 27 and 28 points respectively in 2010.
After panel member and Education Department Deputy Chancellor Shael Polakow-Suransky gave a lengthy and sunny explanation for the poor marks — blaming tougher testing standards while at the same time giving an optimistic interpretation of the numbers — Department of Education Chancellor Joel Klein told the crowd, "We're on the road to progress."
As the audience of roughly 100 parents and students quietly stirred in their seats, Panel Member Patrick Sullivan — who was appointed by Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer — took to the microphone.
After calling the preceding presentation an attempt to protect reputations and ridiculing the plummeting test scores as the "worst debacle in the history of the public school system," Sullivan made a motion to open the meeting to the public.
This incited the crowd, prompting chants of "Let Us Speak" while Zakiyah Ansari, a parent leader with the New York Coalition for Educational Justice (CEJ), attempted to address the panel.
"You will have a chance to speak later," said a visibly irritated David Chang, Chairman of the PEP, which only further incited the crowd.
"We will recess if you can't behave," added Chang, who, moments later, did exactly that.
As a majority of the panel took refuge backstage and behind a wall of DOE security, parents and CEJ organizers took turns addressing the audience and voicing concerns about the aforementioned test scores, as well as a widening racial achievement gap and a lack of accountability by DOE officials.
The confrontation took an ugly turn when Kirstian Reyes, 11, of the Bronx, bounded onto the stage and attempted to retrieve one of the panel's microphones.
A member of the DOE security team stopped the PS 306 sixth-grader and began forcibly removing him from the stage. As the security member pushed Reyes toward the steps he was greeted by an angry mob of roughly 20 protesters.
"You don't put your hands on a little kid. You don't push them, you talk to them!" one of the protesters shouted.
After the melee dissipated, Reyes said he didn't think they have a right to touch him and added that he just wanted to go up there to tell the panel to come out from its hiding place.
"They're telling us we need an education but they're the ones who need to get one," Reyes said.
The panel did attempt to reconvene but was unwilling to deal with the outspoken audience.
"If you want respect you have to give respect," said Panel Member Philip Berry.
Moments later, Panel Chairman Chang brought the meeting to a close.
"There is no order so the meeting is adjourned," said Chang, before getting up and exiting the stage.
A DOE spokesperson called it unfortunate that parents who came to voice their opinions before the panel could not be heard because a "small, unruly group refused to respect the process and wait for the public comment period to begin."
But panel member Patrick Sullivan told DNAinfo there was no place on the agenda where parents could respond to the presentation of the administration's point of view regarding test scores — which he called a "debacle" because, after going up and up, "now they tell us the children are not proficient.
"I don't think the presentation was an honest attempt to address the concerns of parents," Sullivan said.
"I think the purpose of the presentation was to try to portray the performance of the public school system in the best light possible in order to buttress the reputations of the people who are charged with running it."