By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
By Roy Edroso
By Jon Campbell
By Albert Samaha
By Zachary D. Roberts
On May 21, 2007, a coordinated scrum of police officers on foot, in patrol cars, and even hovering overhead in a helicopter converged on a group of 32 young people ranging in age from 13 to 21.
The group of mostly teens had been walking through a part of Bushwick to a train station, heading for a funeral taking place that day for their friend, an 18-year-old who had been shot in what police believed was a gang murder.
The mass arrest was immediately controversial. Police Commissioner Ray Kelly and the Brooklyn District Attorney's Office claimed that the group of 32 were gang members themselves, dressed in gang colors, flashing gang signs, and stomping on parked cars as they made their way through the neighborhood. But parents—as well as bystanders who didn't know the young arrestees—disputed that account, saying the procession was a peaceful one, led by students from nearby Bushwick Community High School. Even after being handcuffed, the students didn't protest their arrest or lose their cool, witnesses claimed. The police, parents alleged, had invented stories about the students' being unruly and damaging cars to justify the arrest.
For weeks, there was substantial press coverage as accusations about the incident flew back and forth.
The New York Post called the police officers "outright heroes," and condemned "whining" from critics. In the months that followed, however, nearly every criminal charge against the students was dismissed.
There was far less press coverage this past April, when the city agreed to pay 16 members of the "Bushwick 32" a settlement of $257,000 to end a civil lawsuit that alleged police harassment and unlawful arrest. (Twelve additional members of the group filed a similar civil rights lawsuit against the city earlier this month.)
And what has received even less press attention than that is how a bunch of high school students managed to give the city such an expensive drubbing.
The pupils at Bushwick Community are not model students. In fact, many are the truants, gang members, and behavioral cases that other schools can't handle. Bushwick Community is their last chance, a school with its own problems and a graduation rate so miserable that the state has scheduled it to be closed in two years.
And yet these students, deemed screw-ups by the school system, managed to give the police department one of its worst black eyes in recent years.
It turns out there's a perfectly good explanation for it. And if the police had only known what some of the students at Bushwick Community had been studying, they might have had second thoughts about swooping down on them, SWAT-style.
Bushwick Community High School sits on a long block it shares with low-slung, clapboard houses and a dentist's office. The school occupies the second floor of a building that houses two other schools—a few blocks away, another four high schools were recently opened to replace a large, failing school that was shut down by the city.
A typical Bushwick Community student is 18 years old and has completed less than a year of high school. Students as old as 21 attend. About 10 percent of them have children of their own. Some are homeless, living in abandoned buildings, and some a teacher euphemistically calls "street-level pharmacists."
Not all of the kids are hard-luck cases: Some actually choose to go to Bushwick Community; others are transferred there for reasons other than being dumped by schools that no longer want them.
Most new Bushwick Community students walk through the door having already failed three years of high school, and only 6.6 percent of them will graduate in four years. Even after seven years, only 38 percent finish, which is well below this year's city average of 60 percent. The rate is so meager that the school is one of several in the city scheduled for closure by the state. (Parents and teachers managed to derail a similar school death sentence in 2004.)
Every student is at least 17 years old, which means that, by law, they can walk away at any time, and most do. But the ones who stick around tend to show up regularly. "If they're there," says Meyer, "it's because they really want to be there." That may explain why, despite the miserable statistics, students and teachers tend to give the school high marks in DOE surveys. Unlike the schools that students have transferred from, Bushwick Community has no metal detectors, and Principal Randall sees no need for them.
Outside the school, however, violence is a constant presence.
Donnell McFarland didn't go to Bushwick Community, but the students there knew him as a fancy dresser and a ladies' man, which explained his handle: Freshh. His friends knew that the 18-year-old could often be found at Putnam Park, hanging with a group called the Pretty Boy Family.
Police consider the Pretty Boy Family to be an offshoot of the Bloods gang.