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School safety must be top priority in Hempstead

Alverta B. Gray Schultz Middle School in Hempstead,

Alverta B. Gray Schultz Middle School in Hempstead, April 15, 2015. Credit: Danielle Finkelstein

Education is about a lot of things. Good teachers, motivated students, committed parents, adequate resources -- they all play a part. But at the root of it all is safety. Teachers cannot teach when they're afraid, and students cannot learn when they don't feel secure. School must always be a sanctuary.

What happened in Hempstead's middle school Wednesday is deplorable -- and a failure on many levels. A seventh-grade math teacher was allegedly beaten and choked into unconsciousness, in the hall outside her own classroom, by a woman who is the mother of one student and guardian of another. One of those kids, 14, allegedly joined the assault.

How could anyone think such conduct is appropriate? Why did school security abandon protocol and let the woman in unescorted? What about the lack of leadership from district administrators, who have received complaints from teachers for years about a lack of security at the middle school and other buildings -- complaints that spiked in recent months?

The details are chilling. Sources say the teacher had brought her class to lunch when she came upon two students in a hallway carrying lacrosse sticks, a violation of school policy. The teacher asked for the sticks, one girl refused, they exchanged words and went their separate ways. When the teacher returned later to her classroom, the girl's mother was waiting. Her daughter apparently called her after the confrontation.

The mother, Annika McKenzie, 34, was alone and had no pass even though school video shows her entering the building and passing security staff. The teacher told McKenzie she needed clearance to be in the building, then turned away and called for security. McKenzie came up from behind, grabbed the teacher in a chokehold and threw her to the floor, where she and the 14-year-old girl allegedly punched her. Both were arrested. The teacher, 58, suffered a concussion.

The incident did not occur in a vacuum. Earlier this year, teachers say, a student brought a BB gun into school. That followed multiple reports of students threatening to kill teachers and one who said he was going to rape a teacher and her daughter. Ironically, the math teacher foretold her own fate at a faculty meeting two weeks ago, when she raised concerns about hallway safety and told the middle school principal that security needed to have a bigger presence.

At an emergency faculty meeting Thursday, a male teacher who was in his classroom near the math teacher's said he heard somebody call for security but didn't react because that call is heard so frequently. He expressed his regret and said teachers need to find better ways to communicate when there is imminent danger. That's distressing.

Hempstead school board president Lamont Johnson promises to discipline those responsible for the lax security. But that won't change the attitude of administrators who seem all too ready to shrug and say: That's Hempstead. That's intolerable. Anyone unwilling or unable to help change the mindset should be fired.

Sadly, this comes as Hempstead is trying to right itself academically. That's a long and difficult journey by itself. But it becomes impossible when you have to make the trip in an environment that's not safe.