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Bronx School's Dangerous Climate Ignored Long Before Stabbings, Parents Say

By  Danielle Barnes Janon Fisher and Amy Zimmer | September 29, 2017 12:51pm | Updated on October 2, 2017 7:42am

 Police and others at the Urban Assembly School for Wildlife Conservation, a middle and high school that shares a building with P.S. 67.
Police and others at the Urban Assembly School for Wildlife Conservation, a middle and high school that shares a building with P.S. 67.
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Amir Levy

BRONX — The high school where two students were stabbed this week — one fatally — was seething with violence and intimidation prior to the deadly attack, according to parents and school safety data.

School safety officials and many parents from the Urban Assembly School for Wildlife Conservation wondered why the building did not have metal detectors or more security before Abel Cedeno stabbed two classmates during a Wednesday morning history class 

Cedeno — an 18-year-old who had been bullied and frequently subjected to racial and homophobic taunts, according to his family — fatally stabbed Matthew McCree, 15, and critically injured a 16-year-old after they threw pencils at him.

Friends said Cedeno bought the 3-inch knife he used in the stabbing nearly two weeks ago off of Amazon and sent videos to them showing him opening the switchblade.

The West Farms high school had a history of bullying and violent incidents that were well above the average of others schools citywide, city Department of Education data shows.

Parents said the concerns they shared about safety and other bullying incidents with Principal Astrid Jacobo fell on deaf ears, while security agents said they had previously asked for metal detectors at the building, which is shared with P.S. 67.

"The union has been stressing to the de Blasio Administration that this school needs metal detectors, and we have gotten nothing but pushback from the administration,” said Gregory Floyd, president of the School Safety Officers union, Teamsters Local 237. “There's a lack of disciplinary enforcement at the school, and the students can sense it."

Uneek Valentin, whose son attends the high school, said her 17-year-old had been bullied there, but that his tormentor was not suspended after she spoke to the principal about the situation.

“[I talked] to the principal last year about the fighting, but nothing came of it,” she said.

Eventually, her son beat his bully with a belt, Valentin admitted.

Jacobo, who has been the head of the school for nearly three years, did not immediately respond to calls for comment.

The school building — which parents said has two safety agents handling roughly 1,200 students — saw two major crimes during the 2015-'16 school year, according to city Department of Education data.

That was nearly four times the citywide average of 0.57 major crimes for the same size school, the data show.

State education data for that school year, which is the most recent available, also showed that the Urban Assembly School for Wildlife Conservation had a higher-than-average number of incidents.

There were three sex offenses and two assaults, including one involving a weapon, at the school last year, the data shows. The school also had nine incidents of intimidation, harassment or bullying, two of which involved weapons.

Out of 1,800 traditional public and charter schools citywide, only 40 reported more than two bullying incidents with weapons, according to the data.

Though the administration touted last school year as the safest on record — with the de Blasio administration discussing the possibility of reducing the number of schools with metal detectors — the experience of students at Wildlife Conservation reveals a different story.

Many students reported feeling unsafe there, according to the annual Department of Education survey that polls the school community.

Only 55 percent of kids last year said they felt safe in hallways, cafeteria, bathrooms and locker rooms. That was down significantly from the year before, when 75 percent of kids said they felt safe. Only 47 percent of students said they felt safe just outside the building.

Parents said their children felt the school was a dangerous place.

"These kids are getting beat up and jump[ed] right outside of school. These things [are] happening often,” said Jeannette Martinz, 47, whose ninth- and 12th-graders attend the school. “The principal and staff are covering [what’s] going on in the school.”

There were also other red flags about the school’s principal.

Only 44 percent of the teachers said they trusted the principal — 37 percent less than the citywide average, the DOE survey said. Only 43 percent of teachers agreed that the principal knew what was going on in the classrooms.

Not everyone believes the answer to making the school safer is to bring in metal detectors.

Of the roughly 3 million scans conducted during the first two months of last school year across 200 schools that have permanent or temporary metal detectors, only a small number of items were confiscated — including 73 knives, 21 boxcutters, three BB guns and an unloaded handgun, Pro Publica reported.

NYPD school-safety chief Brian Conroy noted Thursday that safety agents last year recovered more weapons than ever, but that most were not found through scanning.

Nearly 1,430 weapons were confiscated at schools last year, the NYPD said previously. 

"We didn't see any reasons prior to having scanning in that school," Conroy said at a press conference Thursday.

Members of the Urban Youth Collaborative, a youth-led coalition that has focused on reforming overly punitive discipline that disproportionately affects people of color, called for mental health supports instead.

“The default response following tragic incidents involving young people in communities of color has been to prioritize policing and incarceration,” read a joint statement from the Collaborative's Roberto Cabanas and Bryan Aju.

“Research shows the most promising strategies for sustaining safe and supportive school communities is building strong relationships between students and staff through the use of restorative practices and increasing the number of guidance counselors, social workers, and trained mental health support staff," they continued.

Meanwhile, members of the Bronx-based New Settlement Parent Action Committee said that increasing police presence represents a "superficial" solution to a "deep and complex problem."

Instead, they called for "community-building circles" to prevent bullying and violence, as well as "healing circles" to help students processing trauma in moments of tragedy.

"Metal detectors will not prevent violent fights in our schools," the group said in a statement. "We know that anything can be made into a weapon if a student is feeling trapped and desperate, but if our schools are safe, affirming, and supportive environments for young people, we can eliminate violence in our schools altogether."

It was unclear whether Cedeno reached out to a counselor or other staff members at his school.

NYPD officials said Cedeno had been harassed by other individuals at the start of school, though not by the two teens involved in Wednesday's stabbing. While police said he had not reached out to anyone at Wildlife Conservation about the situation, his family believes the school was aware of his bullies and did nothing to stop them.

"I have instructed my team to conduct a thorough investigation on all issues, and this is underway," Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña said in a statement. "We have additional safety measures and grief counselors in place and will continue to support the school community."

With reporting by Clifford Michel