If account at Staten Island is accurate, it reads like Homeland Security taken to an extreme with youth, as well. -
January 18, 2006
Outcry, but Few Answers, After Principal Is Removed
By SAMUEL G. FREEDMAN
ONE day last May, the president of the College Board stood in the packed
auditorium at Curtis High School on Staten Island and handed over a check
for $25,000. Curtis had earned the money as one of just three high schools
nationally to receive the organization's Inspiration Award for motivating
students to attend college.
Operating at 160 percent of capacity, with a student body rapidly shifting
from white to minority and from middle class to working poor, Curtis sent
85 percent of its graduates on to higher education. Everybody in the crowd
that day understood exactly why the school's jazz band culminated the
ceremony by playing "Respect."
Aurelia L. Curtis was dancing with all the rest on the stage, and nothing
seemed more appropriate than the coincidence that her surname and the
school's were identical. She had been at Curtis for more than 20 years, the
last two as principal. An immigrant from Liberia, she formed part of the
same racial transformation on Staten Island that was being felt in her
school. More than a few of Curtis's alumni owed their college scholarships
to her personal involvement.
Last week the Curtis auditorium was filled again, ostensibly for the
monthly meeting of the PTA, but this time the mood was indignation rather
than celebration. Ms. Curtis had been removed from the school in
mid-December by the Department of Education, reassigned to the purgatory of
regional headquarters. The department is investigating the principal's
conduct in two episodes last fall, one involving a supposed threat by a
student to bomb the building and the other an attempt by the local police
to arrest three Curtis students inside the school.
In Ms. Curtis's absence that night, a chorus of students, teachers and
graduates demanded her return. The chairman of the local branch of the
N.A.A.C.P., the neighborhood's City Council member - and perhaps most
surprising - the president of the citywide teachers' union joined in the
outcry on the principal's behalf. Most of the members of the audience wore
lapel badges with a picture of the suspended principal and the slogan
"Curtis Needs Curtis." Others carried signs showing a broken heart.
All they got in return were the legalistic responses of the Department of
Education's designated flak-catchers - Margaret Schultz, a local
instructional superintendent; Nancy Ramos, a community superintendent; and
Robin Merrill, a lawyer. They would not explain the content of the
investigation against Ms. Curtis or the timetable for concluding it. "We
are bound by chancellor's regulations and New York State law," Ms. Ramos
offered in a typical comment.
That was pretty much when patience ran out for Maurice Royster, whose
daughter received a scholarship to the University of Delaware with Ms.
Curtis's help. "She was in this building for a reason," Mr. Royster said,
referring to the principal. "You knuckleheads up there don't know nothing.
I made myself get off the bus after work tonight and come here, and I don't
even like PTA meetings." A moment later he concluded, "Let the woman come
The controversy began on Oct. 31 with a 16-year-old junior, according to
both school and law enforcement officials. The boy, an honors student
active in several school clubs, as well as a professed Marxist, was arguing
about capitalism after school with fellow members of the Curtis debate
team. In the course of the discussion, another student raised the question
of what kind of action was permissible to create political change. The
junior's lawyers, school administrators and the police differ on the exact
wording, but all concur that he said something along the lines of how he
could plant a bomb in Curtis the next morning as a protest against
Word of the remark went from the debate team's faculty adviser to a dean to
Ms. Curtis. On the morning of Nov. 1, she met with the student and his
mother and searched the boy's belongings, finding no bomb-making materials
of any kind. She then shared the information with the teachers and
administrators on a crisis-intervention team. They decided to suspend the
young man for four days and require him to receive a psychiatric evaluation
before being readmitted.
On Nov. 4, however, the police in the 120th Precinct station house, two
blocks from Curtis High, learned of the boy's statement. (Accounts differ
as to whether the police were informed by Ms. Curtis or by a regional
security officer in the Education Department, whom the principal had told.)
That afternoon, the police arrested the student on the charge of making a
terroristic threat, a felony written into law by the State Legislature six
days after the Sept. 11 attacks. Meanwhile, the Department of Education
ordered him suspended >from school until Feb. 1.
If there was any criticism at the high school of Ms. Curtis's handling of
the situation, it was at an extremely low volume. "I haven't heard anyone
say they felt their children were in jeopardy," Tom Hepworth, the high
school's parent coordinator, said in a recent interview. "When they found
out what happened, the sequence of events, they were satisfied that a
person they respect and trust made the best decision she could make."
For that matter, two of Ms. Curtis's own children are enrolled in the high
school. Would a mother possibly have put them at risk of a terrorist
bombing? Or would an experienced educator have known the difference between
an incipient mass murderer and a precocious teenager trying to sound
In late November and early December, Ms. Curtis went on a fellowship to
Japan to study comparative educational systems. During that period, an
investigator from the Department of Education came to Curtis High and told
administrators there he was looking into whether the principal had failed
to report a crime, a violation of chancellor's regulations.
ON Dec. 14, the afternoon after returning from Japan, Ms. Curtis was
watching a girls' basketball game when the police entered the school gym to
try to arrest three male students, claiming they had just robbed a student
from a nearby high school. By the accounts of several witnesses, Ms. Curtis
told the police the boys had been with her in the gym all afternoon and so
could not have committed the crime. At the least, she told the police, she
did not want them questioned until their parents could be called to the
The next morning, the Department of Education reassigned Aurelia Curtis to
regional headquarters. The last her colleagues at school saw of her, she
was cleaning out her office.
In the weeks since, the Staten Island district attorney decided not to
prosecute the three Curtis students the principal had defended. A grand
jury has yet to hear the case against the young man in the bomb threat
episode. Yet Ms. Curtis appears no closer to having her case resolved.
Stephen Morello, the communications director for the Education Department,
said, "Until we have an opportunity to examine all of the issues raised
about the principal's handling of particular situations, we have reassigned
Jacqueline Lopardo, a Curtis graduate who went on to Vanderbilt University
and a career in law, had a retort of sorts when she addressed the Education
Department representatives at the PTA meeting last week. "You talk about
how you need to protect Curtis High School," she said. "We stand
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