CLAREMONT — John Torres was walking through Claremont Park one afternoon last spring when a pack of young men sprinted past him in pursuit of another young man.
That youngster disappeared — only to return with his own crew. One member carried a bottle, ready for smashing.
“Then all of a sudden,” said John, who was then a seventh-grader at I.S. 339, “it was an all-out brawl.”
Spurred by such violent episodes, John and several other young people in an after-school program decided to take action: They contacted the Parks Department and requested emergency call boxes for Claremont Park.
Last month, three solar-powered call boxes were installed and, on Saturday, the youngsters held a small ceremony to celebrate the phones’ arrival, which they said would cut down on fights and crime.
“This will make the park safer for us kids,” said Tamba Jagana, a sixth-grader who lives near the park.
Claremont Park’s 39 acres of wooded hills, grassy fields, playgrounds, ball courts and a pool spread out a few blocks from the Grand Concourse, between 170th and 173rd streets.
The park is surrounded by schools, including several high schools crowded inside the Taft Educational Campus west of the park and the middle schools I.S. 313 and 339 to the east.
Conflicts at the middle schools in particular, which have struggled with violence and bullying, often spill over into the park, with students scheduling after-school brawls there or gathering in large crews that sometimes pick fights, students said.
“There are a lot of gangs there,” said Tamba. “They’ll curse and tell us to get out of the park.”
The schools’ safety agents watch problems brew at the parks, but say they can’t leave the school grounds to intervene, the students added.
And students may not carry cellphones they could use to call for help, since they are prohibited from bringing phones into I.S. 313 and 339, which have metal detectors.
So last fall, a group of students who live around Claremont Park and are involved with a community-based education group — New Settlement Parent Action Committee — brainstormed ways to improve park safety.
They settled on more lighting and security guards, community-led patrols and the call boxes. Then a few students actually called the Parks Department and made their request.
Soon after, some Parks employees visited Claremont and removed branches that were blocking the lights. Meanwhile, the department contacted the local police precinct, which helped fund the call boxes.
Jocabel Santos, John’s mother, said the emergency phones offer her some piece of mind when John is at the park.
“I don’t think it’s enough,” she said, saying more park officers are still needed, “but it’s a start.”
The students agreed, noting that a community-patrol group had yet to form and trash still piles up in the park.
“This is just the first step,” John said, “of the work that we’re doing here.”