Are Child Predators in Our School System Slipping Through the Cracks?

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The William T. Sherman School, P.S. 87, has a reputation for being one of the most popular public schools on the Upper West Side, if not all of Manhattan. The school motto is "One Family Under the Sun," but recently that bright outlook was overshadowed by a harrowing incident of child abuse that has parents and local leaders questioning how a predator could have possibly landed at their beloved school.

Gregory Atkins, 56, was arrested Feb. 10 on charges of sexual abuse against a student at P.S. 87. Atkins had been working as a paraprofessional at the school since 2008. His alleged victim, an 8-year-old male student, told police that Atkins led him into a bathroom stall on four separate occasions during the school day on Feb. 2, where Atkins forced him to undress, touching him and claiming he was checking for bruises. He also allegedly made sexual comments to the student. The victim reported the behavior, and on Feb. 3, Atkins was removed from the school, according to a letter Principal Monica Berry sent to parents.

Parents were warned that investigators may need to question them about their children's contact with Atkins, but so far no other allegations have come forward-not from P.S. 87, at least. After Atkins was arrested, a 2006 letter from the DOE's special commissioner of investigation surfaced, detailing what was determined to be Atkins' inappropriate behavior toward a young male student at his previous school, M.S. 322 in Upper Manhattan. No one at P.S. 87 had seen this letter, and parents are up in arms demanding to know why.

"There's a lot of anger, obviously-anger primarily because of that 2006 report that wasn't put in [Atkins'] file," said Rebecca Levey, co-president of P.S. 87's parent association. "There are a lot of questions about what the processes are at DOE, why the principal wouldn't have access to that."

The letter, addressed to then-chancellor Joel Klein, details the commission's findings after an investigation was launched when a young boy's mother brought her concerns to school officials at M.S. 322. The investigation found that Atkins had developed an inappropriate relationship with the student.

While there were no allegations of sexual misconduct, it was found that Atkins often attended the student's sports games, walked him home, told his mother that he could babysit her son and bought the boy gifts, including a jock strap and other athletic equipment. The final conclusion from the commission was that "appropriate disciplinary action be taken" against Atkins. The principal delivered a verbal warning to Atkins and did not choose to place a letter in his permanent file.

How Atkins came to work at P.S. 87 is unclear. The DOE insists that since he applied for a transfer and had seniority as a paraprofessional, the P.S. 87 principal who preceded Berry had no control over who came to the school. The United Federation of Teachers disputes that and points to its paraprofessional contract, which states that paraprofessionals may apply for transfers and that the head of the school to which they apply makes the hiring decision. In Atkins' case, however, no one would have known about his past at M.S. 322 because no record existed in his professional file, and that's what has local parents irate.

"Parents are really angry, and rightfully so," said Noah Gotbaum, a Community Education Council (CEC) member for District 3 and a parent of children who graduated from P.S. 87. "Not only is there a breakdown in execution, there's no policy. It's the DOE passing the buck. The DOE has been unaccountable in this matter and in this realm for years, and parents want to know why."

Gotbaum said that at a recent CEC meeting, parents wanted to know how the DOE determines what sort of behavior warrants termination and what warrants a simple reprimand. The DOE has said that their hands are tied by what the Office of Special Investigations recommends, but that they train their employees to recognize inappropriate behaviors.

"The Office of Equal Opportunity goes into schools regularly to conduct trainings for teachers and other school-based employees. We provide in-depth training concerningappropriate conduct in the workplace between teachers and students, including sexual harassment, unwanted touching and unwanted contact," said DOE spokesperson Deidrea Miller in an email.

"We emphasize during the trainings that the focus is not on the teacher's intent but whether the conduct or contact would make a student feel uncomfortable," Miller said.

The DOE declined to answer further questions on the record about whether or not they have concrete policies. Staff members at P.S. 87 also declined to be interviewed.

Some parents are pushing for more specific guidelines that would have clearly red-flagged Atkins' behavior. "In terms of parent interaction, in terms of every policy from hiring the principal to CEC elections to testing to everything the chancellor's regulations are, down to the smallest detail, they want to control everything," Gotbaum said. "When it comes to the safety of our kids, there's nothing."

Upper West Side Assembly Member Linda Rosenthal said that as a result of this and other recent allegations of sexual abuse in public schools, she and other legislators are looking into ways to put tighter regulations in place at a state law level.

Citing the Office of Special Investigations, Rosenthal said, "Maybe their role should be expanded, with ways to follow up [on investigations' findings]. We must have a much more robust system of protecting children."

Levey said that she and her co-president, Rachel Laiserin, are focused on keeping parents united and informed in the wake of the devastating case.

"The priority is keeping the parent community together and not letting people give in to anger and fear. There is certainly a place for that, and we as a PA have formed an ad hoc committee run by a father who is an ex-prosecutor, keeping his ear to the ground with the DA's office," Levey said.

Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott met with P.S. 87 parents the Monday after Atkins' arrest at a meeting closed to the press. Levey said that Walcott also met with her and Laiserin to hear parent concerns prior to that meeting. The DOE released a letter to parents stating that going forward, they will enter investigative reports into their system "in such a way that pertinent information will be visible to schools for consideration when making hiring decisions" and will also review past cases where special investigations found substantiated allegations of misconduct.

"What parents want-and I just don't think they're going to get it-they just want somebody to take responsibility," said Levey. "We just want someone to say, 'We messed up.'"

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