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Anti-Bullying Groups Banned at 'Nightmare' Bronx Schools

 The building at 1600 Webster Ave. in the Claremont section of The Bronx includes two middle schools, I.S. 313 and 339. Parents, students and some staff say bullying, fighting and other safety issues are major concerns.
The building at 1600 Webster Ave. in the Claremont section of The Bronx includes two middle schools, I.S. 313 and 339. Parents, students and some staff say bullying, fighting and other safety issues are major concerns.
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DNAinfo/Patrick Wall

CLAREMONT — Johanna Torrez dashes through 2 miles of traffic most afternoons, rushing to get her daughter from I.S. 313 before other students have the chance to target her.

“I have to race to pick her up so they don’t bully her,” Torrez said recently as she hurried her sixth-grader through a pack of just-dismissed students. “I don’t feel like she’s safe here.”

She’s not alone.

Other parents and their children who go to school at 1600 Webster Ave., a building shared with I.S. 339, describe a chaotic culture where staffers struggle to prevent student teasing, cursing, hitting and class cutting.

In a Department of Education survey last year, more than 80 percent of students in both schools reported bullying and more than 90 percent reported physical fights on campus.

While bullying and fighting are prevalent in many middle schools, this building saw an unusual entity emerge to help solve the problem.

A small coalition of students, parents, organizers and even a few staffers began meeting last year to discuss school safety issues — and they eventually proposed several solutions, including peer mediation training, for which they found funding.

But the school principals went from tolerating the group to shunning it, eventually walking away from its proposals and banning it from meeting in the building.

Now, as another school year winds down, many say the campus’ safety woes rage on.

“I feel scared all day,” said Jocelyn Alfonso, a 339 parent. “I don’t trust that school.”

Bullying on campus is a major concern for some parents and students.

Amaris Obando, the former president of 313’s parent association, transferred her seventh-grade son out of the school last year after persistent bullying left him “extremely depressed and unmotivated,” she wrote in a letter to the principal in March 2012.

“‘BULLYING’ has been a constant in this school’s environment,” she wrote. “I hear them in the hallways yelling at one another and speaking to each other with the foulest language and graphically humiliating scenarios.”

Teachers seemed overwhelmed by unruly students, with no clear school-wide discipline system to rely on, Obando added in an interview.

“It seemed like everyone was on their own and just surviving,” she said.

A current 313 sixth-grader said he has complained to his teacher about being regularly teased and cursed at, but little has changed.

“I’d like to be homeschooled rather than come to this school,” the boy said.

Other students and a staffer said children often cut class and wander around the building — some know a rear entrance where they can slip out of school undetected, two students said.

Some described long lines to get through the metal detectors each morning, which leads to arguments that often erupt into altercations.

The bathrooms seem to be a frightening place for some students, who told stories of children who were jumped or shoved into toilets, while others smoked in the stalls or threw lit paper into a trashcan.

“He never goes to the bathroom because he’s scared,” Sada Rodriguez said of her son, a sixth-grader at 313.

The chaos around the building and in some classrooms can make learning seem impossible, some students said.

Last year, only 14 percent of 313's students passed the state English exams and a third passed math. At 339, 17 percent passed English and just over a fifth passed math.

Both schools appear to resort largely to punitive measures, such as detentions and suspensions, to address issues of safety and respect.

Last school year, 339 doled out 241 suspensions — more than any other school in its district.

One seventh-grader there said he had racked up more than 50 detentions this year. His mother said sending him to a counselor might solve the problem, rather than shooing him to a detention room where he can clown around with classmates.

“Come on — 50 days of detention and still the same thing?” she said. “It doesn’t make sense.”

Principal Lauren Wilkins of 313 referred questions to the DOE. Principal Kim Outerbridge of 339 did not return calls.

The DOE offered statistics to show that safety and discipline are improving on campus.

This school year, serious infractions in the building are down 77 percent, suspensions are down 85 percent and bullying incidents are down 94 percent compared to last year, the department said.

It would only provide data combined for both schools on campus.

“The Department of Education takes bullying very seriously and has enacted a regulation and implemented Respect For All initiatives that help to teach students to respect differences in others,” DOE spokeswoman Marge Feinberg said.

Two 339 teachers said the school provided them classroom-management training, formed an anti-bullying group and added more safety officers. A 313 teacher said many students bring behavioral baggage to school.

“The schools are not going to change what happens in the homes,” the teacher said.

In the spring of 2012, the coalition of students, parents, organizers and some staffers, which called itself Safety First, began to meet in the building after school to discuss safety concerns and possible solutions.

After an initial meeting, Principal Outerbridge did not participate, but 313’s Wilkins was very receptive early on, the group said.

In fact, documents show, Wilkins wrote a proposal for 313 to pilot three programs that the coalition had sought — peer mediation, community-building circles and staff classroom-management training.

Knowing how tight individual school budgets are, the coalition secured an $8,000 grant from an advocacy group called Dignity in Schools and additional funding from the DOE to pay for the pilot programs.

But, by last fall, the principals’ view of the coalition and the positive-discipline pilot programs appears to have soured.

In October, the principals walked out of a meeting with the coalition, the group said. Shortly after, the group was banned from gathering on campus.

Neither school ended up implementing the pilot programs.

“It wasn’t going to cost the schools anything — and they still turned it down,” said a staffer who was part of the coalition. “They basically didn’t want anything to do with it.”

Wilkins did not explain to the group why she turned down grant money for a proposal she originally wrote, said member and former 313 parent, Yvette King-Facey.

"The first time it was funding — we answered that question," she said. "Then it was nothing — she was unresponsive."

Shoshi Chowdhury, coordinator of Dignity in Schools’ New York chapter, suggested that the principals may have worried that the programs could be taken as a sign that the schools were struggling with discipline.

"They don’t want their school to be perceived as bad," she said.

The DOE did not respond to questions about the Safety First coalition or the pilot programs.

The coalition continues to meet outside the school, though its numbers have dwindled.

In March, students in the group surveyed about 100 of their peers — mostly from 339 — about their thoughts on the school they attend.

One question asked for a single-word summary of their school.

A few students said “great” and “safe.” But others offered darker descriptions, including “stressing,” “crazy,” “jail cell” and “nightmare.”