To The Editor:
In November of 2013 I was invited into the East Ramapo public schools and community centers by concerned parents. I volunteered, alongside Senator David Carlucci, in Advocating for Change’s Thanksgiving Drive in East Ramapo. I met many wonderful teachers, staff and students at Kakiat Elementary School, Chestnut Ridge Middle School, Ramapo High School and the other schools. The experience so moved me that I offered to return in 2014 to read my books to the students. I was at Chestnut Ridge Middle School on February 11 as part of Rockland Read-In. I gave assemblies at Grandview Elementary School in April and Kakiat Elementary School in May.
During these visits, multiple safety, security and health issues were brought to my attention. At Kakiat Elementary School, the front steps were crumbling and I was told six people had fallen on them. The chain link fence surrounding Kakiat served no purpose. The gates were all unlocked and open, allowing strangers to blatantly trespass on school grounds during school hours while children were outside playing. I witnessed this with my own eyes. I was stunned.
At Ramapo High School, the front façade was cracking and a protective awning was put up to safeguard the students and staff from falling debris. At Chestnut Ridge Middle School, a summer camp had begun to plan and construct swimming pools without the proper permits. In addition, once the camp began operating, garbage began to overflow the school’s dumpsters and property. I took pictures of dirty diapers on the ground by picnic tables.
I decided to document the problems at these three schools with pictures and posted them on my website. I wanted to draw as much attention as possible. News12 contacted me and did a story on the perilous conditions at Kakiat and Ramapo. I believed that I was acting in the best interests of the public, especially the children, and was doing so legally. Sadly, Superintendent Joel Klein felt differently. He recently sent me, via personal delivery, a “Notice and demand that you immediately cease and desist from entry onto any of the public schools located within the ERCSD.”
Dr. Klein states my “entry onto school grounds at the three (3) schools is unlawful.” If I fail to comply, the District and Board of Education will take legal action and will file a complaint with law enforcement “to protect the District, its tenants, children, staff, etc. from any criminal trespass or loitering, as well as the District seeking judicial intervention.”
Dr. Klein’s letter is an attempt to intimidate and silence me. In legal terms it is called the “chilling effect.” He is trying to suppress my free speech by threatening legal action against me. Incidentally, if the District took me to court, the taxpayers would pay to prosecute me. The same taxpayers whose children I am advocating for. The more troubling aspect of his letter, however, is that it proves without any doubt that Dr. Klein has no interest in the plight of the public school children. He sent me a cease and desist for bringing to the public’s attention multiple safety, security and health violations that only affect the public school children. The more logical reaction would’ve been to thank me for possibly preventing a tragedy while minimizing the liability for the ERCSD.
Logic, however, doesn’t exist within the Administration and Board of Education in East Ramapo. Instead, fear emanates from the men in power and it permeates the entire District. Staff and students, leery of retaliation, are afraid to vocalize concerns as programs and services continue to be taken away. To call it a hostile work and school environment is an understatement.
I believe Dr. Klein was instructed to send me the cease and desist and that he didn’t write it himself. He is clearly not acting in the best interests of the public school children. The only solution to end the severe injustices being inflicted upon these children is for the State to take full control of the ERCSD. The entire Board of Education and the Superintendent must immediately be relieved of their duties and an interim Superintendent and Board of Education should replace them.
It’s shocking that a Superintendent threatens criminal prosecution for exposing safety, security and health violations that are ultimately his responsibility. I maintain that public safety takes precedence over unfounded allegations of criminal trespass or loitering. Unfortunately, the author visits I had scheduled for other ERCSD schools this fall won’t occur as a result of Dr. Klein’s letter. The public school children lose out once again thanks to Dr. Klein.
However, I think his letter is going to have the opposite effect than what he intended. As we speak, parents in Clarkstown are awakening to the dire situation next door in East Ramapo. These parents are currently collecting 100 book bags for Advocating for Change’s Book Bag Giveaway, which will result in 900 book bags being donated in Spring Valley Memorial Park in August. Dr. Klein can choose to neglect these precious souls, but compassionate humans won’t ever give up on them. We are growing in numbers. We will do everything within our ability to bring those responsible for their predicament to justice:
“Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable… Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”
~ Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Robert Ward Kurkela
July 28, 2014