In her LinkedIn profile, Principal Patricia Catania of Intermediate School 224 in the Bronx describes herself as a “lifelong educator and a lifelong learner” with more than 25 years of experience in education. However, she’s learning a valuable lesson this week in Black Studies.
Catania is at the center of the latest public school controversy that has students, parents and teachers outraged and asking for her removal. Catania, who is white, allegedly ordered a teacher not to teach Black history to students.
New York City schools continue reeling from acts of blatant racism against students of color at the hands of white teachers. The latest string of racial incidents began earlier in the month, when a white teacher at Bronx middle school stepped on the backs of Black students during lesson on slavery, according to reports. “You see how it was to be a slave?” said Middle School 118 teacher Patricia Cummings. “How does it feel? See how it feels to be a slave?”
Natasha Capers, coordinator NYC Coalition for Educational Justice, told the AmNews, that aside from the initial assault on the students, parents were upset that the Bronx teachers was initially only suspended for a couple of days and was allowed to work at the school before she was reassigned. “Just thinking about how these kids have to continue to interact with her after she disrespected them like that is beyond words,” said Capers. “Some of the kids really adored Cummings but were just disappointed of how much of a racist she was. It’s even worse when you realize what trauma the kids are now in. Some may have never experienced racism or even realize how problematic what Cummings did. What she did to the children was horrible and we need to have talks our children when they are facing racism and how to deal with it.”
Capers, an activist mother of two said that she believes Mayor de Blasio is responsible for this situation because of how he failed to deal with prior racist and bias situations. “Every time we tried to contact the mayor, our issues are either dismissed or ignored,” she said.
Capers organized a rally last week in front of City Hall. She said, “The fact that Cummings had the notion to disrespect these children and is actually getting away with this should not be OK. We shall continue to fight for our children and for the next generations to come.”
A rally and news conference was held outside of I.S. 224 against Catania Monday, led by National Action Network Crisis Manager Kevin McCall. He’s calling for changes for public schools to teach more Black history.
“We are here today to send notice to the Department of Education to let them know that we will not tolerates you disrespecting our history,” said McCall. “We are sending a clear message to Ms. Catania. We are calling for you to be removed immediately.”
English teacher Mercedes Liriano-Clark previously reported that Catania told her to stop teaching Black history during a lesson about the Harlem Renaissance.
Liriano-Clark stated, “She asked, ‘Why are your students working on Black history project?’ and I said ‘Because it’s Black History Month. She said, ‘You are the ELA teacher. You don’t teach social studies. You don’t teach humanities anymore.’ I said, ‘Black history is in every subject.”
Liriano-Clark said the students protested and started a petition and were “badgered and questioned.”
“Black history will continue at MS 224 every day,” she said.
Reports indicate that a day after the rally, Catania confiscated a student’s Black history poster with no explanation. Catania later returned the poster to the student. Bronx superintendent Richard Cintron reportedly went to the school Wednesday to investigate the matter.
In a statement, the DOE said that they encourage students to learn about Black history in school.
“Students are currently working on projects related to Black History Month that will be presented and highlighted at the end of February,” a DOE representative said. “All schools must provide a supportive and inclusive learning environment, and there’s no place for discrimination or bias of any kind in our schools.” The city also learned about 17-year-old Malcolm Xavier Combs, an honor student at Christ the King High School, who became another victim of discrimination and embarrassment when school officials denied his request to use the name “Malcolm X” on the back of his senior sweater. Combs was pulled out of an AP English class by school official Veronica Arbitello, who told him that the civil rights activist was “a person you don’t want to be associated with.” When he told officials that was his name, Combs said during an interview with the AmNews, Arbitello and her husband, who is also a staff member at the school, laughed at him.
“The assistant principal said, ‘This is the new Malcolm X’ and they both laughed,” Combs said. “I was shocked that somebody would say something like that. They just laughed at me by putting down my name. I was really disappointed because thought it would be cool to have that name on the sweater because I really like my name.”
Combs mother, Mychelle, said she and her husband met with the school and that as of Tuesday, they had not changed their position. She said her son was named after the civil rights leader and that he was born in Brooklyn on Malcolm X Boulevard.
“They told us that the name was to controversial and offensive to the other students,” she said. “I’m offended that they would even think I would name my son something that’s offensive. The truth only have one version and they come out with many. How is it that he’s offensive and he’s controversial and then you tell reporters you taught Malcolm X over the last 20 years and he’s in the curriculum?”
Malcolm said that he wants to see his high school make African-American Studies and elective. He said he wants to go into video game design and attend college at New York Institute of Technology or the historically-Black Oakwood University in Alabama. He said that despite what happened at school, his large support system is keeping his spirits up.