Hempstead educators and school staff, dressed in black in solidarity, demanded tighter security Friday after a parent and child were charged in an attack that left a middle school teacher unconscious.
Between 75 and 100 people -- among them teachers, assistant teachers and parents -- rallied outside the Peninsula Boulevard district offices after the school day ended to condemn the violence. They marched and chanted slogans including "Our safety matters," "We deserve support," and "We want action."
They were upset that a teacher was hurt, but also about other problems in the district, among the lowest performing on Long Island.
'The children are being hurt'
"We are not getting the support we need," Elias Mestizo, head of the Hempstead Classroom Teachers Association, told the crowd. "We are not getting the support in safety and security, we're not getting the support in curriculum. We are not getting the support in resources . . . and we are being hurt. The children are being hurt and we're not going to take this any longer."
School board president Lamont Johnson said school officials "are very concerned about the safety of the students and staff" and are working on safety improvements.
"This is very important to me. I'm a former police officer," he said. "We have to re-evaluate the whole security" and will start by making sure school security is "identifying everyone that comes in and out of the buildings" so that type of incident doesn't take place again.
The incident took place Wednesday afternoon at the Alverta B. Gray Schultz Middle School, when Annika McKenzie, 34, the parent of a student, went past the middle school's security checkpoint and confronted a math teacher outside a classroom, according to the Hempstead Police Department.
McKenzie pushed the teacher, put her in a headlock and threw her on the floor, police said. A 14-year-old girl believed to be McKenzie's niece then punched the teacher in the head, police said.
Mestizo said the teacher, who has not been identified, was unconscious for several minutes, and police said she was briefly hospitalized. She was recovering at home Friday, he said.
"She's in a lot of pain," Mestizo said.
McKenzie and the girl were arrested and charged with second-degree assault. McKenzie, who was released on $7,500 bond or $5,000 cash bail, also was charged with second-degree strangulation.
The child was referred to the Hempstead Juvenile Aide Bureau and to Family Court. McKenzie's case was handed over to the Nassau police Third Squad, which had no other updates, Nassau police Det. Vincent Garcia said Friday.
Acting as a 'mama bear'
McKenzie's attorney, Donald Rollock, said that she pleaded not guilty and would contest the charges. He said there are details to the account that have not yet been disclosed.
He said McKenzie was acting as "a mama bear" in trying to protect an 11-year-old daughter over allegations that the teacher mistreated her.
"The problem here, I think, which is going to have to be looked into and investigated too, is when you have a teacher place their hands on a student you create emotions, and it appears that occurred," said Rollock, a Mineola-based attorney.
While the teacher has not commented, Mestizo said it's not the practice of any teacher to physically engage children.
At the rally, Mestizo also said that there had been another breach of security Thursday, the day after the incident happened, with another parent going past security to talk to a teacher at the same school.
Dolores Porcaro, 65, who retired in June after 20 years as an English teacher in Hempstead, said security problems aren't new in the district. She once had a middle school student show a photograph of herself pointing a gun at Porcaro's head, she said. No significant action was taken in that case, she said.
"I have seen the district spiral down in recent years to where it's unmanageable to teach in," Porcaro said. "There's been a turnover in administration, constantly. There's no accountability, except for the classroom teacher. The conditions are terrible as far as safety and discipline."