HARLEM — Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott met for more than an hour with parents at P.S. 208 in Harlem Friday morning to try and assure them that the school was safe after a well-liked teacher was charged with sexual abuse of an 8-year-old girl.
Rafael Sosa, 28, a third-grade teacher at the school, was held on $75,000 bail Thursday night after he pleaded not guilty to one count of sexual conduct against a child, one count of sexual abuse and one count of endangering the welfare of a child.
"If I had to describe it in a word, I find it repugnant based on the allegations." Walcott said, describing the meeting with parents as "angry" and "emotional" at times.
Authorities say Sosa sexually assaulted the girl on multiple occasions between December 2011 and last week. The married father of a 5-year-old son allegedly gained the trust of family by buying gifts such as an iPad, lunch and sneakers for the girl and her two brothers.
Parents at the school described Sosa as a well-liked to teacher who was friendly and responsive to both parents and students.
When kids at the school balked at wearing uniforms, parents said Sosa began wearing a uniform to school in an effort to make students feel comfortable.
"Everybody knows this teacher. It's very surprising because he was so sweet charming. He had us all fooled," said Sabrina Glover, 17, a graduate of the school where her 10-year-old sister now attends.
Glover's mother Aida Martinez, said she planned to move her 10-year-old from the school.
"Today is her last day she is not coming back. They didn't protect her, they didn't protect none of the students," said Martinez.
She said the meeting didn't help.
"I came with questions and left with more questions," she said.
Walcott said the Department of Education was notified earlier this week by the Manhattan D.A.'s office that Sosa's arrest was imminent. He met with the principal on Wednesday morning and the school sent notes home to the parents.
Counselors were made available to parents and students and information was handed out on how to speak with a child about sexual abuse and tips to prevent abuse.
Walcott, who said there was no indication in Sosa' DOE or criminal record of past abuse, used the case to push for legislation proposed by he and Mayor Michael Bloomberg that would make it easier to fire teachers where claims of sexual abuse are substantiated by DOE investigators but there may not be criminal charges.
Under current rules, an arbitrator chosen by the DOE and the United Federation of Teachers has final say over firing teachers who have engaged in inappropriate sexual behavior or made inappropriate sexual comments.
"We want the power and ability to say if you have a substantiated case of improper touching we want you out of the classroom, we want you out of the system, we want you terminated," said Walcott.
"Not even if you are convicted, if it is substantiated. To me that is a great leveler as far as controlling the system," he added.
There have been at least 10 public school employees arrested on sexual abuse charges this year.
"I don't know if it's a rash. We've had a slight uptick this year. But with more publicity, more people come forward. And quiet frankly, if people are concerned, if people have questions, we want them to come forward," said Walcott.
He insisted there was no one to blame for the abuse except the accused teacher.
"We cannot stereotype an entire system. This is one case and one case too many, but at the same time we were very clear about this school that it is a safe school," said Walcott.
Parents said they were not pleased with the chancellor's answers.
Annie Fernandez, a parent whose 9-year-old daughter attends fourth grade at P.S. 208 disagreed with Walcott's assessment that the school was safe. She said that four schools are co-located in the building with another two schools slated to be added in the fall.
She feels there is a lot of chaos at the school and not enough security guards to patrol and make sure kids aren't behind closed doors with teachers.
"The school is not safe at all. That's my opinion. You have four different schools and sometimes only one security guard," she said.
"I asked [Walcott] in regards to that and he just cut me off and said I was wrong, that the school didn't need anymore security guards."
Noah Gotbaum, former president and member of Community Education Council 3, said "teachers are not getting enough support, enough training or enough resources. It's going to be chaos with six schools and principals focused on testing and trying to keep from being shutdown."
Parent Cristna Andrades, whose 12-year-old son graduates from fifth grade at P.S. 208 this year has a another child entering the school in the fall. She said she's still in shock and trying to help her son, who is traumatized over the incident, cope.
"When things pop up like this you want to die because you want to keep your children as safe as possible," said Andrades.