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Hundreds turn out at meeting about violence at Hempstead High

Brianna Vaughn hugs Shanita Ray, after she breaks

Brianna Vaughn hugs Shanita Ray, after she breaks down in tears speaking at the community collaboration meeting at Hempstead High school over the recent incidents which occurred Monday and Friday. School board president Charles Renfroe watches on right. (March 13, 2010) Photo Credit: Newsday/Karen Wiles Stabile

Parents attending yesterday's meeting called by Hempstead school district officials hoped to leave reassured about their children's safety in the wake of two disturbances at the high school last week.

Many who braved the weather to attend left disappointed, however.

Moments before the meeting began, Olive Warner and Alpha Callender said they were seeking assurance their freshman daughter would be safe in classes following two days in which police were called and Hempstead High School students were dismissed early last week.

"If I don't hear what I want to hear, I'm pulling my child out," Warner said before the meeting.

Two hours later, the couple said they were dissatisfied and would look to enroll their 14-year-old at a private school.

"Why are we here?" said Callender as the meeting, attended by Superintendent Patricia Watkins and school board members, ended. "They didn't say anything. They are missing everything," he said, visibly upset at school officials' reactions.

The high school's cafeteria was packed with more than 200 parents, students, school staff and members of the public for the community forum called to discuss ongoing tensions at the school. It lasted about two hours.

School officials pledged to root out problem students and send them to an alternative school they have said they will rush to open as a result of the disturbances.

Extra security at the school would stay in place, officials said, and they would continue to reach out to the community in their search to resolve the unrest. Monday, classes at the high school will begin at 11 a.m. to allow staff extra time to prepare for the week.

Superintendent Watkins said afterward she felt the meeting went well. "I think we were able to put some things on the table."

Views about the reasons behind the unrest varied. Some parents and students blamed racial tensions between black and Latino students, others said it was just routine teenage "acting-up."

The forum began quietly with presentations and comments from school officials. Later, emotions ran high as students burst into tears describing their experiences and parents loudly demanded answers.

During the meeting, Shanita Ray, 17, the school's senior class vice president, wept as she described life as a student to the crowd. "None of you walk the hallways at Hempstead High School," she said. "None of you sit in the classrooms - you have no idea how scary it is."

Roxanne Jones, a parent whose 16-year-old daughter is a junior at the school, said she hopes her daughter will be safe. "I sit at work by my phone waiting to hear what's going on," Jones said. "I just sit and think, 'Oh, God. I want to hear that she got home safe.' "

Many parents said they were frustrated and uneasy about sending their kids to school this week.

On Friday, students were let out early, in staggered dismissals, after a disturbance in which no one was injured. Two students were issued citations for disorderly conduct. At least eight students suffered injuries in a fight last Monday, and eight face charges.

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