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P.S. 87 Parents Confront Walcott After Teacher's Aide Accused of Sex Abuse

By Leslie Albrecht | February 13, 2012 12:51pm
P.S. 87 on West 78th Street starts classes this week along with other public schools.
P.S. 87 on West 78th Street starts classes this week along with other public schools.
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DNAinfo/Leslie Albrecht

UPPER WEST SIDE — Outraged P.S. 87 parents confronted Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott Monday morning over the arrest of a teacher's aide on sex abuse charges.

They demanded to know why the school hired the aide, despite him being investigated in 2006 for having an inappropriate relationship with a child at another school.

"Are our kids safe here?" shouted one father during an emotionally charged two-hour meeting with a standing-room only crowd in the school's auditorium.

"Yes, your children are safe here," responded Walcott. "How do you know?" shot back the angry parent.

Hundreds of parents packed the meeting to learn more about the allegations against Gregory Atkins, 56, a paraprofessional who was arrested on Friday on several sexual abuse charges.

Court documents revealed that Atkins led a boy to a bathroom stall four times during the school day on Thursday, Feb., 2, forcing him to undress and touching the boy’s body while telling him he was searching for bruises.

Robert Hettleman, chief of the child abuse unit at the Manhattan District Attorney's office, called the allegations "incredibly disturbing," but warned parents at Monday's meeting not to panic.

Hettleman noted that only one child had made an allegation against Atkins, and that the child was not physically harmed. Atkins, who started working in public schools in 2001, mostly worked one-on-one with specific students, Hettleman said.

"Mr. Atkins has not had unfettered access to hundreds of children," said Hettleman.

But that didn't quell parents' anxiety over the fact that Atkins came to work at P.S. 87 after he was investigated in 2006 for having a questionable relationship with a male student at M.S. 322.

DOE investigators found that Atkins' relationship with the boy was indeed inappropriate, and recommended disciplinary action. But because the relationship wasn't sexual, no charges were filed, according to the DOE.

The school's principal met with Atkins about the relationship, but did not place a written report in Atkins' personnel file.

Two years later, after working for a time at M.S. 246 in Brooklyn, Atkins was transferred to P.S. 87. While all DOE employees are fingerprinted and checked in national and state registries for criminal records, it's up to principals to perform reference checks on employees, Walcott said.

"I'm looking at our policies to see where we can tighten them up," Walcott said, adding that parents "have a right to be on my ass" about the alleged abuse.

Officials are investigating what, if any, reference checks were made when Atkins joined the P.S. 87 staff. Principal Monica Berry, who took the helm at P.S. 87 in 2009, told the crowd she calls references at previous schools for everyone she hires.

One parent said it was "insane" that Atkins was hired after the 2006 investigation. Another mom charged, "You could have done a lot more about that allegation. We all know where there's smoke there's fire with sexual predators."

Walcott countered that accusations made against DOE employees don't necessarily belong in permanent personnel files — that would put the DOE in a "dangerous place," he said.

"You could have all types of unsubstantiated claims," Walcott said. "If you make an accusation against an individual, that should end up in their personnel file?"

One parent shouted out, "Of course!"

But Walcott disagreed.

"People have a right to due process," he said.  A parent shouted back, "What about the children?"

Berry told parents P.S. 87 was running with a "business as usual" atmosphere, but that a "crisis team" of counselors from nearby schools was on hand for children who might need extra attention.

"We're going to take our cues on how to address it from the children because we don't want to alarm them," Berry said.