By Jackie Delamatre
The fatal stabbing of Barnard student Tessa Majors this December in Morningside Park has reminded many New Yorkers of the 1989 Central Park Five incident in which several young black and Latino teenagers were arrested and charged with assault and rape. That case was notoriously mishandled, with convictions obtained in part on police-coerced confessions. The accused each spent between 6 and 13 years in jail before they were exonerated.
Now, after weeks of investigations, two 14-year olds have been arrested and charged with murder and robbery in Majors’ killing. They will be tried as adults. A third boy, a 13-year old, was charged with second-degree felony murder and will be tried as a minor.
The Central Park Five case is looming large in the minds of parents at the school the three boys attended. All three went to PS/IS 180 on 120th Street and Morningside Avenue, also known as Hugo Newman College Preparatory School. Parents and politicians have been struggling with big questions. Has the school and community been supported in the ways it needs? What could have been done to prevent this tragedy? And what can be done to prevent another in the future?
Just after drop-off one morning earlier this year, a few parents trickled into PS/IS 180 with their kids while others hung out on the sidewalk chatting. Across the street, Morningside Park rose up from the sidewalk, a striking example of urban natural beauty marked by two new additions in the foreground: floodlights and an NYPD patrol car.
Sonya Galaviz, the mother of a PreK student, walked out of the school wearing a white sweatshirt and camouflage-print pants. When asked about how families are dealing with the news of Majors’s death she said all the students at the school knew about it – even her preschool child. “You hear kids talk about it. They know why the lights are now in the park.” But she welcomes the increased safety measures. “It’s gotten safer,” she said. “Normally the park is so dark, but now they’re rehabbing it.”
Just inside the school, Carolyn Kelly, mother of a first grader, was collecting letters to demand better school funding from the state. She said she was worried about whether the boys have sufficient legal representation, were coerced into false confessions, and should be tried as adults. “It’s completely heartbreaking, devastating on so many levels. I worry about our students and whether they’re being railroaded through the justice system.”
She also worried that the media was violating their privacy. “At this point we still don’t have a conviction, and we’re dealing with minor children. I think the media should not be publishing their names.”
Kelly was upset at Governor Cuomo, pointing to the governor’s latest budget that she said, “undermines Medicaid – how so many of our families get their care – and doesn’t fund repairs to NYCHA housing.”
“The government uses the criminal justice system as a substitute for meeting the needs of students and their families,” Kelly said. “Governor Cuomo needs to reckon with his complicity through his underfunding of schools. Rather than pathologize Harlem, we should ask questions of Cuomo and his failure to fund the community. This is not to excuse violence, but this did not come out of a vacuum.”
Some city officials are trying to boost that funding. On January 29, Gale Brewer, Manhattan borough president, held a town hall-style event in which she called on the city to ensure that every school has a full-time social worker. PS/IS 180, serving over 500 K through 8th students, had only a part-time social worker.
A month later, Brewer’s request seemed to have worked. According to Kelly, the school now has its own full-time social worker. But she said: “I think it’s terrible we had to wait for this to happen to get what we needed all along.”
In an interview, Brewer also emphasized the importance of afterschool programming for middle schools. She said that PS 180’s afterschool programs were cut right before the incident because of a “crazy paperwork” issue, leaving the school without programming for a week or more. They have since been reinstated.
Dennis Morgan, chair of CEC 3’s equity and excellence committee, a PS/IS 180 parent, and former PTA president, echoed Brewer’s plea. Morgan said his main goal for the school has been to develop afterschool initiatives to “hold students accountable and hold their interest” even when the day ends. With his background in technology and product development, Morgan is personally developing a class to train students to build websites, use photoshop, and learn other technical “skills of the future” to create a “pipeline to careers.”
“These are game changers,” he said. “We need to start building a digital Harlem Renaissance.”
Yet Morgan was not shy about naming the challenge: “This is what poverty looks like and what it looks like when you have poverty right next to privilege.” Eighty-four percent of this year’s class of sixth graders at the middle school qualified for free or reduced lunch, and Morgan said the school does not receive the resources it needs to fight the effects of poverty. “Kids who have the highest needs need the most resources. All schools should have what they need.”
Morgan has also been focused on how to help the community heal. “There aren’t many schools in Harlem who can shoulder that sort of burden,” he said, but this one “has such capacity for love and support… Our parent community is really strong.” Still, he said the “level of impact was so deep.”
“The school is part of the Harlem community so when things happen to kids at that school it impacts us emotionally. People think, ‘it could have been my son or daughter.’ It becomes real. The parents were shaken,” he said.
In the days following the killing, Morgan helped to move the CEC’s meeting to 180 so parents could speak directly to DOE officials. Parents spoke about positive aspects of the school as well as their concerns. Morgan also helped host a catered breakfast for all middle school students “to show we’re there with our community.”
“I can’t see more students lost to the system,” Morgan said.