PS 132 in Williamsburg. (Image courtesy of PS 132)

The experience of El-Melek Moore’s two children at Williamsburg’s PS 132 is a tale of two realities. 

Moore’s daughter, a Black child and one of the best readers in her cohort, is thriving in her Gifted and Talented class whose demographics skew white and Asian. Moore’s son, a Black child with learning disabilities, has experienced racism in a classroom populated mainly by children of color, she alleges.

Her son was also worse off when her kids attended a majority Black elementary school in Park Slope, but his time at PS 132 smacks uniquely of bias, Moore says.

“I didn’t have anybody grabbing him. I didn’t have anybody pulling him out. I didn’t have anybody yelling at his face. I didn’t have him coming home without a coat. I didn’t have somebody throwing a phone at me. I didn’t have anybody trying to create him into having a behavioral problem,” she said. “All of those things are textbook [racism].” 

Moore’s experience, a group of parents at PS 132 contend, reflects systemic bias at the elementary school where white children make up a little less than half the student body. Shortly after George Floyd’s death in late May, they released a petition calling on the school’s administration to “dismantle institutionalized racism.” However, this petition, its demands and the fallout after its release has divided PS 132’s parents. Even statements of fact are in dispute. In many ways, the conflict mirrors recent conversations on race that have roiled educational institutions nationwide, including high schools and universities.

A Checkered Past?

PS 132 has a recent history of not prioritizing racial equity, allege PS 132 Parents for Change, the group behind the petition, despite arguments from other parents to the contrary. 

“I remember my mom begging me to not put my kid in that school,” Kenyatta Reid, a Black parent at the elementary school, vice president of the school’s Parent Teacher Association (PTA) and one of the petition’s authors, said in an interview with Greenpointers

Kristin Schiele, a parent at PS 132, also claims she’s seen examples of the school’s apathy towards racial justice.

When Schiele, an artist, offered to do a free silk screening event in support of Black Lives Matter this past January for the school’s children, the administration declined her proposal.

“The administration is not open minded enough,” she said, explaining that another school in the neighborhood was more than willing to host the event.

Other parents feel that allegations of systemic bias and racism just don’t jibe with their own experiences.

PS 132 at the end of a tumultuous school year (Image via Ben Weiss).

Our experience with PS 132 has been tremendous given its incredibly diverse student body and a group of educators who care deeply not just about our children’s intellectual advancement but their entire well-being,” said Ryan Zagata, a parent at the school, in an email.

In fact, a counter petition is circulating in support of the elementary school’s administration and teachers, which has garnered more than 1,000 signatures to date.

“P.S. 132 administration, teachers and staff members provide a nurturing, peaceful, safe, loving environment for EVERY CHILD,” wrote the petition’s authors, who remain anonymous. 

In a statement, the Department of Education (DOE) did not confirm whether racism is a problem at the elementary school.

“We know that it is critical that all of our students have access to a strong, supportive, just, anti-racist educational system and their classrooms reflect the diversity of the city,” said the department’s spokesperson, Katie O’Hanlon.

Is the Administration Suppressing Speech?

Long simmering complaints of bias—subdued during the pandemic—reached new heights after the school’s administration allegedly tried to censor the PTA following the death of George Floyd. Yet, parents and administrators dispute the spark that set off a firestorm of activism.

According to the petition, Yvonne Bach, the school’s parent coordinator, reached out to the PTA and asked members to take down a social media post of a black square with names of those “murdered by the police” and replace it with “one that expressed respect for all lives.”

When members of the PTA board, Daniel O’Connell and Kenyata Reid, read a message describing the call, they were incensed.

“I think it was the final straw for a lot of people after years of trying to do something,” said John Jurayj, a parent at PS 132 and member of PS 132 Parents for Change. 

However, like the dispute over whether the elementary school has allowed racism to persist in its administration and core of teachers, some contest the petition’s version of events.

“This group, over the course of their internal discussions, decided that they would create the narrative that we were suppressed when that actually didn’t happen,” said David Magdaleno, a parent at PS 132 and interim PTA treasurer. “It is a little sad to think that we are focusing on this negativity that is divisive rather than focusing on how to work together on these matters openly.”

He noted that the PTA had already posted messages in support of Black Lives Matter prior to when Bach allegedly asked for a post that “expressed respect for all lives” and was under the impression that she was merely relaying feedback from other parents.

“Non [sic] of the statements made by Mr. Jurayj, Ms. Reid or Mr. O’Connell [three of the petition’s authors] have any foundation in facts and are completely untrue.” said Yvonne Bach in an email to the head of the DOE, Chancellor Richard Carranza.

Social Media Warfare

After PS 132 Parents for Change released their demands to the public, group members launched a social media blitz, commenting on the PTA’s accounts to garner attention in a campaign that quickly turned bitter. 

When Carola Boada, a parent at PS 132 whose partner was on the PTA board clicked on a link to the petition on Instagram and read through it, she didn’t agree with a number of its requests, which include desegregating teaching faculty by only hiring “Black and Brown” teachers and desegregating all classes.

“I’m pretty sure it’s illegal to hire by race,” she wrote on Instagram, according to screenshots of the conversation. 

“The real problem is that nationwide children of certain races are falling behind, and you don’t fix that by forcing the school to pretend [sic] is not happening by arranging classrooms… by race,” she continued in a further comment.

The exchange turned contentious, and Kenyatta Reid threatened to let people know that Boada and her husband’s business does “not support BLM or anti racism at PS132 [sic],” according to further screenshots of the altercation.

The PTA soon took down its Twitter and Instagram accounts. An arm of the DOE advised the nonprofit to “temporarily suspend all social media accounts and platforms” after the PTA had “received complaints from several of our Instagram followers that they felt harassed, threatened, and pressured,” per an email sent to parents at PS 132. 

In an interview, Boada made clear that she supports the Black Lives Matter movement, but thinks the authors of the petition missed the mark.

“I agree with their overall goals, but I don’t agree with their proposed methods to achieve them,” she said.

Another parent at PS 132, who requested anonymity because of how contentious the dialogue surrounding the petition had become, echoed Boada’s sentiments.

“We need to have this dialogue,” she said. “But I thought that some of the demands were a little too extreme.”

Where the Petition Stands Now

The petition, which has close to 4,000 signatures to date, has undoubtedly attracted the DOE’s attention.

After releasing their demands in mid-June, members of PS 132 Parents for Change met with Superintendent Alicja Winnicki. However, they found her response dissatisfactory, and then escalated the conversation to the executive superintendent of North Brooklyn, who asked that parents work with the administration to implement their demands. Members of the group also couldn’t stomach her response, since they’ve already been lobbying the administration to realize change for years.

Now, they’re reaching out to elected officials and hope to bring the conversation to Chancellor Carranza. They’ve received a statement of support from Council Member Antonio Reynoso, plan to meet with Senator Julia Salazar and are in conversation with Council Member Stephen Levin and Assemblyman Joseph Lentol’s offices. The group also recently started an Instagram campaign cataloguing anonymous complaints about racism and bias at the school.

The DOE acknowledged that they’re in talks with PS 132 Parents for Change as well as representatives who wrote the other petition in support of the elementary school. 

“School, District and Central leaders and representatives have met with each of these groups to discuss concerns and explore ways we can productively have frank and difficult conversations,” said the DOE’s spokesperson, Katie O’Hanlon. 

Race in America (and Williamsburg)

The conflict at PS 132 is just one example of how allegations of racism and bias have challenged educational institutions throughout the city and nation. 

In the city, parents and teachers have penned an open letter that asks for the removal of a superintendent in southern Brooklyn, alleging she’s ignored claims of racism in her district for years.

And black alumnae from elite, all girls schools in Manhattan like Chapin, Brearley and Spence have also vocalized allegations of abuse and mistreatment while enrolled at these monied institutions.

Even Catholic schools across the country are having a reckoning about their schools’ curriculum and its lack of emphasis on Black Catholics and the church’s historical links to slavery and segregation. 

Many feel that now is the moment to challenge acts of racism that have bubbled underneath the surface for years. And for parents at PS 132 advocating for change, they’re not afraid to ruffle a few feathers in what some see as a slash-and-burn campaign to advance their petition’s demands.

“It’s not personal in the end. It’s about systemic racism,” John Jurayj, one of the parents behind the petition, said.

Join the Conversation

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  1. Not my kids’ school so I don’t have a lot of insight into the situation (though some people quoted in this article used to go to PS110), and it’s hard to tell how selective the quoting is from the now-unavailable instagram comments.

    That said, people who just say “the things asked for in a petition aren’t things I like” but don’t concretely propose alternatives don’t seem like they’re really trying to solve equity problems, they come across like they’re trying to put sandbags around the status quo.

    Notably, the “counter-petition” has the same problem: it basically says “everything’s fine”. This dismissal of experiences from POC is a reflex that makes me a bit sad — after George Floyd and so many others, “everything’s fine” strikes me as a disingenuous response.

  2. It is imperative to listen to the experiences of Black children and their families. I am a white mother and educator in a NYC Public School. “Microaggressions” and blatant RACIST behaviors happen all of the time. Many white people are unaware of their implicit, unconscious biases, yet their behaviors are profoundly damaging to Black and Brown children and adults. The Principal at this school has an egregious history of blatant racist behavior. If she is not being condemned, punished or fired for her behavior, how can there be any accountability for the teachers to do better. Racism is the fabric of this nation and now that the truths of this country are being shown, the 2020-2021 school year is going to full of teaching ANTI-RACIST curriculum, teaching the truth about US History and its UGLY racist roots from day 1 of colonization.
    This is how systemic racism will be dismantled. Every school needs to be on board to make these changes. This school needs changes in its administration, in order to allow children to learn the TRUTH about US History and begin to dismantle systemic racism that plagues this nation!

  3. The fact that my (white) child has had nothing but wonderful experiences at this school doesn’t mean the institution is doing everything right. Students and families experiencing racism and bias should be disturbing to everyone. Parents who are attempting to belittle these experiences are horribly dismissive and only furthering systemic racism. We must demand more from our school so that EVERY student feels they are in a safe and supportive space.

  4. A diverse and safe public school absolutely must not answer a request of support for the Black Lives Matter movement with “change your message to ‘All Lives Matter’” when that is clearly the responding cry of the people who feel their power structure is threatened. It is not only tonedeaf, but it is cowardly and very clearly a response to marginalised people that you do not see or acknowledge the centuries of struggle and fear they and those who look like them have had to and still face daily. It is a phrase adopted by white supremicists in this country to incite conflict. Anyone pretending to not know this at this late stage of the game, is being deliberately obtuse or is lying and veiling their insecurity and support of systemic racism with a loosely veiled platitude.

    IF you don’t like all of the demands presented by a discriminated or marginalised group, your knee jerk reaction should never be to discount their experiences and truths. I’m shocked that this needs to be said today. The victim blaming that is happening by some in this community is disgusting and is shining a light on some real true colours.

  5. If you are not fully committed to providing all children with an anti-racist education, then you have no business working in education in any capacity. Shut this school down until the staff is full of people who actually love children.

  6. I am a teacher in District 14, where P.S. 132 is located. Our community will not stand for this! The clear racism and negligence on the part of P.S. 132 staff and administration are harmful and irresponsible. I attended a recent SLT meeting at P.S. 132 where a PEP member asked the principal directly to address the concerns and demands of parents regarding anti-racist and CRSE curriculum and pedagogy. The principal smiled and said that, unfortunately, there just wasn’t any time to address those concerns. How can a principal summarily dismiss parent concerns of racism under the thin veil of timing constraints? Why is our superintendent not taking action? Superintendent Winnicki, your community demands accountability. Publicly denounce the racist behavior of the principal and parent coordinator! Fulfill the demands of P.S. 132 parents for equitable education for their students!

    1. I also attended that meeting and witnessed the PEP member asking the principal about anti-racist and CRSE curriculum and pedagogy. It was a lame and dismissive response from the principal. And I agree, our superintendent does not seem to be taking action to hold principals and schools accountable for the racist experiences our Black, Latinx, Asian, immigrant, and ELLs are having. A public statement from the superintendent specifically addressing PS132 is not a radical demand. And the P.S. 132 parents for change demands are not radical either, I don’t see why they can’t be fulfilled with the full and eager support of the principal, of our superintendent, and the DOE.

      1. Amazingly, I attended this same SLT online meeting and had a completely different perspective. What you are posturing as racist was in reality, an overly aggressive parent hijacking a meeting that had NOTHING to do with this to bring attention to their personal agenda. It was correct of the principal to be as dismissive of this individual as this individual was of the stated agenda. Please tell all sides of the story people.

        1. Thank you Melissa for being courageous and not being bullied by people with personal agendas behind a racist/homophobic narrative. And Mike’s link is a wonderful reminder that we are all human beings and we should strive for dialogue to make what’s wrong, right. A parent, David Magdaleno, actually wants to have an OPEN dialogue and on the opposite end of the spectrum, Kenyatta Reid DISMISSED a parent’s concern about a petition’s point and threatened that parent’s business. That’s why Mike’s link is so important and everyone should read it. My take away is that one side has anecdotals and they don’t necessarily scream of systemic racism at this school. Now, is it because I’m white and so I’m unaware of my implicit and unconscious biases? Because I don’t understand will someone’s respond to my comment and brand me a racist and shut me down like the parents in the article?

          1. You dont understand the link and its context and you are misappropriating its ideas. You also dont seem to understand systemic racism or what it looks like. Systemic racism is what is happening at ps 123. Systemic racism is threatening to call the police on a Black woman for wanting to organize a peaceful boycott of a persons business (fully her constitutional right). Systemic racism is how you cant see or understand systemic racism. Its embodied in David Magdelano’s position of minimizing other people’s trauma , pain and experiences because he has had a nice experience.
            U have asked in your post if you are unaware of your racism. There is no need to comment on it. Your comment is proof.

  7. Melissa Tom Sheppard is not an overly aggressive parent he is the DOE head of P.E.P. Please get the facts, you are incorrect. P.E.P IS OVERSIGHT of Beth. Beth was afraid of what’s happening. Tom Sheppard is there because of the racism at 132.

    1. Kenya was the overly aggressive parent. You all were there – speak the truth and use your real names. Are you all still bitter about the ridiculous meal program that was contested because none of the students who benefit most would ever eat it but it made you feel good to be feeding everyone chickpeas? How about the posturing to cancel all holidays at the school? The bulk of you aren’t even zoned for 132 so if it’s really this bad, why subject yourself to it? The easiest solution is to simply go to your zoned school and be happy? Kenya says her mom didn’t want her to go here and Kenya has shared that she isn’t even in the district. If it’s that bad, just go to your local school as I’m sure it’s perfect.

  8. Thank you David for responding to my comment and your kindness to my misunderstanding. Let me explain my position on how I understood the linked article and where I took my points from. It’s pretty simple… it was about having people talk to each other, having dialogue. Not having to shut anyone down. You have to convince me otherwise when a parent agrees with BLM but doesn’t with a point about a school and she’s still THREATENED… I need a better explanation. If I can’t see racism and I can’t understand racism, then how are we ever going to move forward? How can we fix this if white people can never understand and never see it? That makes no sense. And the examples are nothing but anecdotals and hurt feelings. So yes, I am going to dismiss and minimize other peoples trauma in regards to the school. Let’s be smart about this. Do we want someone to claim it’s the end of the world because they got a paper cut or do we want to put it in perspective where Uncle So-n-So got shot in the head during WW2? But why did you dismiss their nice experiences? Isn’t that just as valuable as a bad experience? Can’t we just talk about it and see it where it takes us? Isn’t that what we want for our children( I don’t have any yet)? The ability to take good things and many bad things and have children draw their own conclusions without… WITHOUT ANY PREJUDICES?
    I think your last two lines are wonderful… and very creative.
    You have provided no proof of where I misinterpreted the link. I have stated my position clearly about open dialogue and fixing the causes of inequality. My comment about whether I am a racist is neither an admission nor a confession of guilt because I am white. For you to simply agree or state that I am white or simply throw my own words back at me, irrespective of my innocence or guilt, makes YOU a racist. Stating that I don’t understand doesn’t make me so. But I do admit David, again, your last two lines are golden and well thought out.
    I am not going to support this uber-racialization. My support is of togetherness and some people seem to undermine the cause of inequality and create this manufactured crisis and it undermines the real causes of racism. Please attack the argument and not the person… I believe we can have a better world if we can just talk. (Full disclosure… from Glendale, living above in laws in Greenpoint, no kids but having a lot of fun trying.)

    1. Draw conclusions about racism? Have opinions about raisn. Take the good with bad, cant we just all get together share our stories and love each other. U said u live a over your in laws is that where plant 2 is?

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