Singing and chanting in English and Spanish, dozens of heavy-coated and woolly hat-wearing parents and activists stormed the doors at City Hall Tuesday, Feb. 6, asking Mayor Bill de Blasio, “Which side are you on?” They emphasized the need for cultural competence in schools.

As a raucous NYCHA hearing went on in City Council chambers upstairs, bewildered and taken by surprise, the security guards could do little to appease the hyped-up crowd, which was led by Natasha Capers as they swarmed the foyer of the prestigious Lower Manhattan building.

The protestors demanded to know what de Blasio intends to do about Patricia Cummings, the seventh grade school teacher who decided that it was in any way OK to step on the back of a school student allegedly asking, “You see how it was to be a slave? How does it feel?”

Last week, while teaching about U.S. slavery during her social studies class at Junior High School 118, Cummings reportedly told three Black students to lie on the floor. When one voiced that she was not comfortable, allegedly Cummings stepped on her back and asked her how did it feel to be a slave.

“Like many others, I am completely outraged to by the actions of Bronx Middle School 118 teacher, Patricia Cummings,” said State Sen. Kevin Parker. “I call for her swift removal from the New York City Department of Education, and the revocation of all New York State licensures and credentials that would allow her to teach in our State.”

Parker continued, “Although I hear some calling for a second chance for Ms. Cummings via culturally competent training and the like, as an African studies professor at the City University of New York for over 20 years now, I know there is no level of training that can make a person more sensitive to the struggles of another. Those feelings cannot be prepared in one’s mind, but rather must be intrinsic to one’s character. This is not the case for Ms. Cummings and it is my hope we can learn for this deplorable act to inform future decisions and best practices when deciding who will be afforded the honor of teaching our children.”

As many schools strive to fulfill some degree of the Black History month curriculum, parents, students and activists were astounded to hear the news. Fueling the subsequent angry response further, the Department of Education returned Cummings to the classroom, until the community ire forced Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña to remove her from the classroom setting.

The mayor’s office said the Amsterdam News should speak to the DOE.

Their spokesman, Douglas Cohen, said, “While the investigation has not been completed, these are deeply disturbing allegations, and the alleged behavior has no place in our schools or in society. Ms. Cummings remains reassigned away from students, and we’re providing the school with additional supports.”

Regarding CEJ’s demands, he added, “City Hall is considering the request.”As Tuesday’s protestors pressed against the inner gate at City Hall, Emma Wolfe, the mayor’s chief of staff, met with Natasha Capers, coordinator of the Coalition for Educational Justice, and Angel Martinez, a parent leader with the organization,

“We met with Ms. Wolfe and Stacy Lynch from Intergovernmental Affairs,” said Capers. “We were assured we would get a meeting to discuss our priorities and we stated that it needs to be done quickly and that we needed a date before the end of the week.”

Capers, a Brooklyn mother of two and coordinator of the NYC Coalition for Educational Justice, told the Amsterdam News that had the mayor listened to the Coalition for Educational Justice and public school parents last year, this incident might not have occurred, as they “have repeatedly and publicly called on Mayor de Blasio to address racism and bias in schools through Culturally Responsive Education, and have been ignored and minimized.”

Capers explained, “Culturally Responsive Education is a research-based strategy that increases teachers’ awareness, skills and comfort with teaching diverse populations, but the mayor and the NYC Department of Education have resisted implementing it on a large scale in NYC.”

“There is a clear need for the administration to be more proactive in mandating Culturally Responsive Education in our schools,” said Councilmember Jumaane Williams. “We should not have to wait for grotesque events of cultural insensitivity to mar our classrooms in order to spur action, and I sincerely hope we don’t have to wait for the next one.”

“Educators teaching in a city as diverse as ours should be given cultural competency training,” said Daniel Dromm, NYC Council Finance Committee chair. “This is the only way to avoid similar traumatic experiences like what happened in the Bronx. Therefore, I stand with the Coalition for Educational Justice in calling on the administration to implement Culturally Responsive Education in NYC immediately.”

The Coalition for Educational Justice stated, “Because of the mayor’s inaction, dozens of students have been victimized and traumatized. … Racist and psychically damaging incidents like this are treated as isolated incidents by the de Blasio administration. But last year, a teacher ripped the hijab off a Bronx Muslim child. In 2013, two teachers used whipping and killing slaves in a lesson about subtracting and multiplying, and were never disciplined. We fear how many other incidents like this are occurring every day in NYC schools and never coming to light.”

“This outrageous, racist incident demonstrates the city’s failure to address racial bias and cultural competence, and to teach students of color their history,” said Angel Martinez, Harlem mother of three and CEJ parent leader. “While the teacher must be held accountable, responsibility rests with Mayor de Blasio, who has insisted on mayoral control. When it comes to Culturally Responsive Education, the mayor has ignored parents’ calls for action, which leads to incidents like this one and daily incidents of bias and microaggressions. Many educators are prepared on how to effectively address issues of race. Eighty-three percent of our public school students are students of color, but 100 percent need a school system that promotes Culturally Responsive Education. We demand that Mayor de Blasio apologize to these Bronx students and their families, provide counseling support to the students who were affected and immediately commit to implement Culturally Responsive Education throughout New York City public schools.”

“For over a year public school parents have rallied, organized and advocated for Culturally Responsive Education and anti-bias trainings to protect students from exactly this type of trauma” said Capers. “Now that it’s in the news, will you listen to parents and work with them? The leaders of this city must take responsibility. UFT, this is your member. Chancellor Fariña, this happened under your supervision.  Mayor de Blasio, this occurred in a system you wanted control over. … What will you do now to end the systemic racism in NYC public schools that children suffer from? What will you do to ensure nothing like this happens again? Will you listen to the voices of Black and Brown parents and do what is right for NYC students by making anti-bias trainings and Culturally Responsive Education the center of your educational agenda?”

Like the other vocal parents, activist Martinez repeated the CEJ’s call for de Blasio to prioritize Cultural Responsive Education and “work meaningfully with the group to discuss the education and experience of students of color in schools.” 

Martinez concluded, “We cannot and will not continue to allow our students in our communities to be subjected to systemic racism. …The time for change is now.”