Keep Moving, Son

Cops in Carroll Gardens are hustling schoolkids onto trains. Police call it protection. Parents call it harassment.

The slash on 13-year-old Robert Cornegy's cheek extends from the corner of his eye to the center of his lip. It took a Park Slope plastic surgeon 60 stitches to sew the wound up—and he still might need a skin graft. They say he fainted soon after one of the older guys—for whom they're still searching—cut him, but now he wears the scar proud.

His father says that ever since the afternoon of May 13, when his son, who shares his name, was attacked with what police think was a razor in a racially charged fight in the large park in the part-hipster, part-yuppie, part-old-school-Italian Carroll Gardens neighborhood in Brooklyn, the kid thinks he's a rock star. "The girls are all over him now—kids celebrate the stupidest things," says the elder Robert Cornegy.

Soon after the brawl (which involved about 40 people, mostly teens), Cornegy asked for a town hall meeting. There, say worried parents and teachers at Robert's middle school, police told them they'd put operation "Safe Corridors" into effect. Typically used outside schools in more problematic neighborhoods, the strategy was first implemented by Mayor David Dinkins in the early 1990s and later expanded by Rudy Giuliani. It amounts to cops shadowing kids to and from subway stations—the idea being to provide them with a protective police shield after dismissal.

Robert Cornegy says he was slashed by a white gang in a fight after school.
photo: Dawn Watts
Robert Cornegy says he was slashed by a white gang in a fight after school.

Expanding the police presence outside the Carroll Street F station, the one used by many of the commuting middle school students at Brooklyn School for Collaborative Studies, seemed like a decent short-term solution. The black and Latino parents, a lot of whom head upwardly motivated families in Crown Heights and East New York, wanted assurance that their kids would be kept safe from a group of older white teens calling themselves the "South Brooklyn Boys," or "SBB." Most think the guy who knifed Robert was a member of this crew, which has a reputation for bullying nonwhite kids.

But when their kids started getting harassed and even arrested for not heading straight for the subway after class, the Brooklyn Collaborative parents soured on the police solution. Instead of feeling protected, students at the progressive, racially integrated school were made to feel like criminals who had to disappear from the neighborhood—a traditionally Italian pocket of Carroll Gardens—right after the final bell.

"This gang of young men," says Brent Sharman, father of an eighth-grader, "has been bullying our kids all year." But after the fracas, police began barking orders at the students to "move on" or "get on the train." Sharman's half-white, half-Latino son says he and his friends have been bullied by SBB and by police in almost equal parts. "Part of the problem is the gang, part is the precinct," says Eugenia Acuna, mother of 13-year-old Darien. "How come they arrest our kids for hanging out, but not the SBBs?"

When school opens again in September, parents want things to be different. They're spending the summer organizing a plan for monitoring what's happening with their teens and the police.

Sharman, whose child was handcuffed this spring, is co-coordinating a "parent watch." Adults will take turns standing at the subway entrance at Smith Street and Second Place, monitoring their kids' behavior—as well as that of police. "I know teenage boys can act in very obnoxious ways," says Sharman. "My son feels mistreated by police; I can only know for sure what's going on if I see it for myself."

Eleven days after Robert was slashed, the 13-year-old daughter of Diane Bailey, owner of a well-known black hair salon in Fort Greene, was handcuffed and taken to the local precinct on charges of loitering outside of a pizza place popular with the junior high school kids. Bailey says police told the kids to move on, but her daughter didn't move on quickly enough for them. "When I went to pick her up," she says, "they had her handcuffed to a bench."

A week later, another 14-year-old says he was thrown to the ground outside of a subway station for talking back instead of obeying a cop's orders to move on. When his friend, Sharman's son, tried to intervene, he too was handcuffed and taken to the precinct.

Parents say slapping the cuffs on an eighth-grader for essentially acting like a typical kid is excessive, but Deputy Chief Michael Collins, a spokesperson for the NYPD, draws a distinction between getting a "juvenile report" and being arrested. It looks and feels the same, but there's no court summons—just a form kept on file at the local precinct for two years. This is no comfort to the parents, who don't like having their 13- and 14-year-olds introduced to handcuffs and patrol cars under any circumstances.

It's hard to be precise about the number of kids who got written up in the two months after the slashing, because of a cumbersome system of keeping track of the minor juvenile offenses, says Collins. Still, cops and parents agree it was just a handful—half a dozen at most. But this number doesn't tell the whole story. For every kid taken to the precinct for resisting orders, parents say, countless more were shepherded into the subway after school like members of a chain gang.

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