On the morning of April 7, Ligaya Yakub received a call to pick up her grandson, a seventh grader at the Robert E. Peary School in Ridgewood, Queens. The school is part of New York City’s District 75, a non-geographic designation of schools that exclusively serve students with disabilities. Yakub’s grandson has been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and is on the autism spectrum.
On the phone, Yakub recalls that the school nurse told her that her grandson injured his arm due to a fall and that it would be best that he leave for the day. But when she got there, it was clear that he needed medical attention. One of the staffers who walked her grandson to the door laughed it off, telling the seventh grader that he was fine, Yakub says, but she took her grandson directly to nearby Mount Sinai Hospital nonetheless.
A review of the emergency room medical report completed on April 7 describes that the 12-year-old screamed in pain no matter where the doctor touched his arm. Yakub says that after an x-ray, the doctor called 911, stating that it was impossible for a fall to cause such a bone fracture. Doctors are mandated reporters and must call the authorities if child abuse is suspected.
Joan Aslarona, the boy’s mother, left work to join her son and mother at the hospital. When Aslarona asked her son who was responsible, he repeated one man’s name again and again – a paraprofessional from school.
At the Robert E. Peary School, and other District 75 schools, paraprofessionals are Department of Education (DOE) employees who specifically aid special education students. Their job is to assist with medical or behavioral issues so that the primary teacher can focus on lessons. They do not have the authority to discipline students independent of the teacher.
Aslarona’s son recalls that, on the day that he was hurt, he used a tablet and was told to put it away. When he did not immediately comply, he was removed from class by a paraprofessional and brought to a “time out room.” These are widely-used controversial spaces designed to seclude students in moments of crisis, or as a form of discipline.
Aslarona’s son recalls that he was separated from his class while the paraprofessional wrestled the tablet from his hands and attempted to restrain him, resulting in the fracture.
Because the time out room at Peary does not have cameras, the New York City Police Department investigation, initiated by the doctor’s mandated reporter call, serves as Aslarona’s source for many of the important facts related to the incident. The school, however, maintains that her son fell while running in the hallway.
Police say it will be Aslarona’s son’s word against the school’s if she chooses to file a civil rights claim. She says this makes her fearful, as it can sometimes be difficult for her son to communicate due to his disability. He remains at Peary, because Aslarona says it would have been too much of a burden to try and change her son’s school, which he has attended since first grade, just one year before he is set to graduate to high school.
She says that there is one thing her son said that still disturbs her. “When we were in the hospital, my son told me that he asked the paraprofessional ‘Why are you doing this to me?’ to which he said ‘Too late.’”
In the months following the incident, Aslarona tried, without success, to find out exactly what happened in the time out room, and how her son came to be injured. The question has broader implications for District 75, in which schools have historically received criticism for their treatment of students.
The day of the incident, the 12-year-old’s primary teacher, Mr. Gilfeather, was not at school. But in the days that followed, Aslarona says he was one of the only school employees she was able to contact. She says Gilfeather apologized and said that he wished he had been there to keep her son safe.
The DOE maintains that this lack of contact is standard practice. “It would be unusual to reveal details of an ongoing investigation, or even the full name of an involved employee, to a parent,” said Helen Kaufman, assistant superintendent of District 75. Kathleen LeFevre, another District 75 employee who liaisons disciplinary matters agrees. She sits beside Kaufman nodding.
“Parents don’t need to know the actual consequences of an investigation. It isn’t a public hanging,” said LeFevre. She explained that in a system as large as the DOE, there are strict regulations on disciplinary proceedings.
“Some parents want a pound of flesh because they’re angry, which is understandable. But we can’t make a judgment without a fair trial,” Kaufman said.
Both LeFevre and Kaufman feel anger is a common obstacle in their district.
“Some of our parents have never dealt with the grief of having a child, sometimes several children, with disabilities, and it manifests as anger towards us,” LeFevre said. Kaufman restates “Our parents are very, very angry.”
In addition to angry parents, LeFevre said students in District 75 “can be unreliable and make things up. If an accusation were credible, the paraprofessional would not be at school.”
LeFevre and Kaufman also mention the implications of lawsuits as a factor in communication between parents and schools. “When parents go to a lawyer instead of allowing the DOE to investigate, it breaks trust with the school,” said LeFevre. Kaufman questions the intentions of such cases, and feels that “some ‘advocacy’ lawyers just want to take advantage of the DOE’s deep pockets,” Kaufman said, using air quotes.
After six months, Aslarona said, she grew frustrated with Peary’s lack of communication and hired an attorney, Andrew Carboy, to sue for the paraprofessional’s full name. If she is successful, she hopes to file a consequent civil rights claim.
Dawn Yuster, Director of the School Justice Project at Advocates for Children of New York (AFC), said that District 75 parents have reason to be suspicious, particularly when it comes to paraprofessionals in the classroom.
“Every year, there are legal cases where paraprofessionals are just not adequately trained. To some extent, they are set up to fail,” she says.
Concerns regarding District 75 schools’ handling of student crises extend past their paraprofessionals. In June 2021, Yuster’s team produced a report detailing methods of discipline and crisis intervention taking place on District 75 campuses. They found that oftentimes, these instances resulted in police calls at rates disproportionately higher than the rest of the city.
Such calls are most often the product of “child in crisis interventions,” moments when a student exhibits distress sufficient to warrant police involvement. Interventions can take place in any New York City school, however the AFC report states that “Students in District 75 are not only dramatically over-represented in these incidents; they are also more likely than their peers to be handcuffed when removed from school.”
Between 2018 and 2020, nearly 10 percent of all police interventions citywide took place in District 75 schools even though they educate only about two percent of the city’s students. And when situations escalate, District 75 students are even more likely to be part of the story. Across city schools, of every five students handcuffed in an intervention, one is from District 75.
Recent DOE data on race and socioeconomic status also contributes to concern about such intervention practices. In the 2021-2022 school year, 40.9% of District 75 students identified as Hispanic with 34% identifying as Black. 86.8% of District 75 students qualify for free or reduced price lunch, the metric of “poverty” within the DOE.
Yuster, while alarmed, is not surprised by the experience Aslarona’s son shared. It is consistent with her findings that District 75 schools seem to approach both disciplinary practices and students’ emotional crises with physical restraint.
With an ongoing lawsuit in the background, Aslarona’s son continues with his eighth grade year. He says he has seen the paraprofessional at school on a handful of occasions.
“It’s still scary to me when he’s there, because I worry that man will want to get back at my son,” she says. “I know it’s probably paranoia, but it really does scare me.”