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.

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."

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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