Parents outraged after 4 kids molested at PS 89

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Parents accused officials of lax security and failing to safeguard their children five days after a student was approached by a man inside the school in an encounter that was not reported to authorities.

Acting Superintendent Joseph Quinn removed the 74-year-old principal of PS 89 Monday morning pending the results of an investigation into the incidents in the school at 85-28 Britton Ave.

It was the second time in the past week that angry parents had confronted officials with questions about school safety. Two days after a man sneaked in through an unlocked side door to the elementary school and sexually assaulted four children inside, parents held a raucous meeting Nov. 22 in the auditorium.

In the first reported incident Nov. 20, a 6-year-old boy and girl were bringing the class attendance sheet to the front office at 8:30 a.m. when a man approached the girl and sexually molested her in stairwell No. 3, said Police Officer Sheryl Cox, a police spokeswoman. The boy was unharmed. Both students informed their teacher, Cox said.

About 10 minutes later, two 7-year-old girls were walking in tandem in the same stairwell when they were approached by the same man, who sexually abused the two, Cox said. At 8:50 a.m. the man approached another two girls in stairwell No. 1 and molested one of them who was 6, she said.

Police said the man wanted for the six encounters on Nov. 20 is the same man who walked into the school on Nov. 15 and encountered a young girl. The girl was unharmed, but told her mother, her teacher and the principal about the intruder, Cox said. The incident remained unreported, however, because some school administrators thought it was a prank, she said.

On Monday night, angry parents said school officials were to blame for not taking the first incident seriously and many used that episode to call for the firing of Principal Cleonice LoSecco.

Police officials, who have been circulating a sketch of the suspect since last week, said they think the man is a local resident but were investigating all leads.

In the aftermath of the assaults, the NYPD has mounted an all-out effort to calm parents' fears.

Deputy Chief Raymond Diaz, commanding officer of the NYPD's school safety division, told parents that with the exception of these two incidents, the neighborhood has become increasingly safer.

"This has been a very, very secure area for a long time, but because the neighborhood feels safe, they let their guard down," he said. "The school has not had an incident like this in a long while."

But some parents remembered an apparently unrelated incident five years ago when a child was molested by a former school employee. At that time, angry parents also questioned the school district's handling of the case.

LoSecco, who has been at the helm of PS 89 for the past 26 years, was reassigned Monday morning to the offices of School Board 24 until an investigation into the incidents is completed, said Quinn.

One PS 89 teacher who asked not to be identified said LoSecco is being used as a scapegoat, but she said some of her colleagues believe the former principal should have been removed.

"I really think she's taking the fall," the teacher said. "She's asked for more security guards before. That doesn't sound like someone who doesn't care for the children."

At the meeting Monday SB 24 officials voted to ban school messengers and passed a resolution requiring all Board of Education officials to wear photo identification cards. Some members also discussed putting cameras and sensor pads in schools, but Quinn said budget allocations might hinder these measures.

At both meetings, many said the school, which has one safety officer and 2,000 students, was poorly prepared for such a crime. Shouting and disorder was prevalent last week as Executive Director of Student Safety and Prevention Services Gregory Thomas desperately tried to subdue the crowd but was often interrupted by parents who demanded answers.

"This is getting us nowhere," Thomas said after repeated attempts to bring order at the Nov. 22 meeting. "We will be here as long as you want us to be here. The NYPD is working on this and we're doing a full assessment."

Thomas said there were plans to put cameras in the hallways and to install an alarm system.

But parents like Sandra Coello, whose daughter went to PS 89 seven years ago and now has a nephew enrolled at the school, still fear for their children's safety.

"We are all really worried," she said. "If that's true that the parents were not notified, that is very bad. It is careless and the principal should resign."

The teacher disagrees, however, and said there is enough blame to go around.

"We all feel we let the kids down," the teacher said. "[LoSecco] has to be strong for us and the school. A lot of the teachers are very upset. She's not getting a fair rap."

Posted 7:15 pm, October 10, 2011
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