School keeps kids inside, so they won't get shot

October 16, 1990|By New York Daily News

NEW YORK -- The sound of children's laughter never echoes through the schoolyard at Public School 40 in the Bronx.

Officials of the elementary school, terrified by the violent drug trade that flourishes just beyond the chain-link fences of PS 40, won't allow pupils to use the playground.

"We're not willing to play Russian roulette with the students' lives," said a school official, who asked not to be identified.

The school is six blocks from the city-owned vacant lot -- the so-called Devil's Playground at 135th Street and Brown Place -- that had been a haven for addicts to take drugs and have sex in view of the classrooms of PS 43. The overgrown lot was cleared by private contractors after a news report last week.

Officials and parents at PS 40, on East 140th Street between Brook and Willis avenues, say the situation at their school is even more dangerous.

Shootings between rival drug gangs and cops occur regularly, said Capt. Bernard Gillespie, commander of the 40th Precinct.

"There is concern for the safety of kids," Gillespie said. "It's best to keep them in. It would take an army of police officers to stabilize that area."

At least one shot was fired into a fourth-floor classroom at PS 40 last March. Students and their teacher were at lunch.

The situation has escalated with such ferocity that Open School Night is held under police guard, the school official said. And teachers are so fearful that they run into the school after parking.

"We're all targets; we're prisoners," the school official said. "We can't go outside."

Last month, Gillespie said, a New Jersey father in a car with his two children, ages 9 and 4, was shot and wounded on East 138th Street in an apparent drug ripoff.

He said narcotics cops had made 340 arrests at East 140th Street and Brook Avenue in the last six months -- at least one-third of all the narcotics arrests in the precinct.

The center of the drug activity is the city's Saw Mill park, which stretches from East 139th to East 140th streets between Brook and Willis avenues. The park, basically some picnic tables on an asphalt yard, is next to the PS 40 schoolyard. It is surrounded by occupied and vacant city-owned apartment buildings where many of the sellers live, police and housing officials said.

The park has become a virtual bazaar for heroin and crack. Dealers known as the Blue Thunder Boys -- named after a label given to drugs they sell -- hawk their narcotics and rent pipes and needles for $2 to eager addicts, Gillespie said.

There is so much traffic from New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Connecticut along the school block that Gillespie has placed a police barricade at East 140th Street and Willis Avenue in an effort to inconvenience drug buyers.

What really rankles neighborhood residents is the so-called cheese line that forms at the main entrance to PS 40 before and after school.

There, addicts line up to buy drugs. The line is so named because it resembles lines that formed several years ago when the government gave out surplus cheese.

"That line is better organized than what you see in the bank," said Maria Varona, an official of the South Bronx Churches, the coalition building homes nearby.

The line is an example of the fearlessness of the dealers, said residents, cops and school officials. In hot weather, drug dealers even put a canopy over their heads to provide shade. Lookouts sit on chairs along the school wall and shout, "Bajando" -- "it's going down" -- when they spot cops.

Confronted with this activity, principal Stanley Weinberg, who ran PS 40 until last year, decided the large schoolyard was no longer safe and couldn't be used. Acting principal Lenore Shapiro, who has continued the policy, would not comment on the situation without the approval of District 7 Superintendent Carmen Rodriguez. Rodriguez did not return telephone calls.

Instead of using the schoolyard, the children use a much smaller interior courtyard hidden from the street. Because the courtyard is so small, the students have to be broken into four separate lunch groups.

Joan Goodman, the teachers' union representative in District 7, said keeping the students out of the yard is necessary but "ruins the afternoon because kids need exercise and release."

Keeping the kids out of the schoolyard adds one more problem to an already overburdened school. At PS 40, only 22 percent of the 674 students read at or above their grade level, putting the school in 598th place out of 619 elementary schools citywide.

Gillespie, the precinct commander for two years, said he could do more if he had more manpower. The precinct has 159 officers, down from 198 two years ago. He said the number is to rise to 175 in two weeks. If Mayor David Dinkins' anti-crime program were enacted, the precinct would get an additional 152 officers.

Sgt. Al Parlato, the precinct's community affairs officer, said a cop is assigned to the school when the students leave each day.

Officials at the city Department of Housing, Preservation and Development are aware of the drug traffic in the city-owned buildings on two sides of the school.

As Parlato passed the buildings last week, he noticed yet another opening in the cinder blocks the city uses to seal windows and doors almost weekly. "They knock them out as soon as we put the blocks up," he said.

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