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McKinstry: East Ramapo bullying must end

File photo of Albert D'Agostino before a meeting

File photo of Albert D'Agostino before a meeting at Hempstead Town Hall. (March 26, 2008) Photo Credit: Newsday/Daniel Goodrich

Growing up in the Douglas Projects on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Charlene Williams-Pulakos learned a few things about bullies: They're not so tough when confronted.

The Pomona resident, whose son was called a "piece of ----" by the East Ramapo Central School District's $250-an-hour attorney, Albert D'Agostino, said her response to this incident is no different from what she learned years ago in the schoolyard and city housing project. Make aggressors accountable for their actions.

"People have to stand up to the bullying," Pulakos, a supervising attorney with Bronx Criminal Court, told me this week. "If every parent taught their kids to stand up to the bully, there wouldn't be any bullies."

She is, of course, correct.

Many of us have our tales of taking on giants, only to learn they tend to collapse under the weight of their own cowardice. But it takes guts to take that initial stand.

It's hard to understand why a school official set his sights on her son, Nicholas, a 17-year-old high school senior and honor student. You'd expect the lawyer to act like the adult in the room -- not the other way around.

"When Nick confronted this guy, he was not disparaging," Pulakos said. "He was direct and calling someone for [their] bad behavior."

Had the student been snippy, sarcastic or downright disrespectful to an official, he'd probably be doing hard time at home. Few would condone that behavior.

Nicholas Pulakos was among dozens of people who turned out to a March 5 Board of Education meeting to speak out against proposed changes to graduation. The meeting got out of hand after trustees abruptly ended it after a long closed-door executive session. Afterward, D'Agostino had some choice words with a local gadfly. That's when Pulakos asked D'Agostino if he was threatening the man. The lawyer then turned on him.

To date, we've heard nothing from the lawyer or other district officials. Not so much as an apology or mea culpa.

That's why Pulakos is unrelenting in her pursuit of justice in the matter. Even though the state's Grievance Committee for the 10th Judicial District on Long Island, which oversees the behavior of attorneys, declined to take any action against D'Agostino after she complained, it acknowledged the allegations of "rudeness and undignified behavior" were troubling.

Now Pulakos wants Rockland County leaders to intervene. She's sending letters to the county executive, district attorney, legislators and state lawmakers to stand up against the bad behavior. She hopes to change the culture in a district where the roughly 8,900 children who attend the schools are battling with those who run them.

The divisions have been evident for years as the nine-member school board -- dominated by Orthodox and Hasidic community members whose children attend private yeshivas -- have cut programs, athletics and advanced placement courses in their attempts to deal with declining aid and a budget gap in the millions.

Meetings have devolved into a circuslike atmosphere involving yelling and screaming and downright disrespectfulness. Trustees have walked out, and the board president has called some meeting-goers "miscreants."

The cursing and intimidation aren't isolated to this latest episode, unfortunately. If nothing else, the incident should remind all about basic decorum for meetings. And that it's just not cool to cuss at constituents.

Now there are calls for a state takeover of the district, splitting along religious lines (a bad idea) or dissolving it all together. But a fix -- clearly needed -- doesn't appear anywhere in sight.

Changing East Ramapo's fortunes is a long haul. But before school officials and community members can embark on that path, they should show some basic respect -- and know that bullying won't be tolerated.

Gerald McKinstry is a member of the Newsday editorial board.

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