Keep Moving, Son

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

The families are particularly concerned that the police's interaction with their children is psychologically damaging. "There is a problem in the African American community where boys suffer because they don't feel loved and protected and valued in society," says Cornegy, Robert's dad. "This issue is a good example of the problem." Kweli Campbell says her 13-year-old son "needs counseling now, though he won't admit it." He was involved in the May 13 fight that started everything. Campbell says that seeing the ones they believe responsible for Robert's new face—the SBBs—free to hang out and make noise while the black and Latino kids are policed adds to the bad feelings.

The parents are gaining broad support. New York Civil Liberties Union lawyer Christopher Dunn says his group is investigating the situation. If police are, in fact, forcing kids out of the neighborhood, the NYCLU will ask them to stop. "They have every right to be there," Dunn says, adding that if police don't listen, the next step could be a lawsuit.

Kamau Franklin, a lawyer for the national Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, says that group has also been investigating the police's treatment of the middle schoolers. When school starts in September, the Malcolm X Cop Watch team will be outside of the subway station, video cameras running, to catch any cops in the act of harassing kids. "When you shuttle kids out of the community you are sending the wrong message to the [SBB] gang members," he says. "The police's response to the tension—arresting black and brown students—has been outrageous."

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.

The presence of cops in and around city schools has been the source of contention for several years. Giuliani put them in charge of school safety in 1998. As former Board of Education member Irving Hamer told the Voice in 2001, that move led to a doubling of court summonses for teens, but failed to put a dent in the number of assaults and robberies on school grounds. Hamer lamented that it "criminalized school buildings."

But City Councilmember Letitia James, who represents many of the Brooklyn Collaborative families, says there's a big difference between having police in classrooms, which she is against, and having police on the streets protecting students, which she'd like to see more of. The problem in Carroll Gardens, she says, is that a sound policy seems to have been turned against the very kids it is meant to protect.

"I have seven schools I've been begging to have Safe Corridors for, but they say they don't have the resources," James says, describing a world in which kids are jumped and mugged and forced to weave their way home through gang violence. "But I was very disturbed to find out about the arrests of the children I represent. They come from good, solid families—I have no problem with giving them a safe passage when they are ready to go home, but if they are being told to 'leave expeditiously' to avoid problems in that neighborhood, that's a problem."

A police source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the manner in which Safe Corridors is applied depends largely upon the parties who ask for it. In James's district, police might be told they are to protect the kids, but in Carroll Gardens, they might just be told to keep the neighborhood quiet.

That quiet might come at the cost of these kids' civil rights. As a practical matter, you can't make the SBBs leave—they live there. But politically, you can afford to shoo the others along, because they've got no clout in the neighborhood. Robert's parents, for example, were a 50-minute subway ride away. His teachers and principal don't have much pull in Carroll Gardens either, because the school has only been there five years. That's about five seconds in Brooklyn years.

Amy Sumner, parent coordinator for the elementary school housed in the same building as Brooklyn Collaborative, says she wishes police would have focused less on policing the middle schoolers and more on finding Robert's slasher—not only for the sake of law and order, but to show the kids that it is possible to successfully resolve conflicts through legal means. "We need to see some action," she adds. "We need to bring him to justice to show the kids that the right way works." The right way, she insists, cannot include making the middle school students feel undesired and persecuted.

In spite of their dissatisfaction with the way local cops have handled things, Brooklyn Collaborative parents have been trying to keep things constructive, starting with organizing the "parent watch" for when school starts this fall. Cornegy plans to be there helping out at the subway station, although his son will be at a high school in a different neighborhood next year. "As a family, it would be the easiest thing in the world for us to walk away, but we are not. We don't want other kids to have to go through this."

He and his family have already given to the middle school community. The Monday after his son was slashed, Cornegy brought Robert to school for a special assembly. He wanted the classmates to get a good look at his pumpkin-carved face laced with stitches. "It ends here," the six-foot-ten dad told the 13- and 14-year-olds as his son stood silently by. "And we want absolutely no retribution—we are handling this through the proper channels." The trouble is, say the parents, the proper channels are letting them down.

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