PATERSON, NJ – A wave of violence has swept through the streets around Eastside High School at dismissal time, as “thugs” with knives and machetes have caused some students to fear leaving the school, city education officials said.
Youths under attack have fled inside area businesses for safety, while others have rummaged through backyard garbage cans to find bottles to fight with, officials said.
Racial tensions between Paterson’s black and Dominican communities have spurred some of the fighting, officials said. A reduction in the city police patrols outside the school at dismissal has exacerbated the problem, education officials said.
Almost every member of the Board of Education commented on the violence outside Eastside during the board’s meeting last Wednesday night.
“They’re bringing in knives, they’re bringing in machetes,’’ said Paterson Schools Commissioner Wendy Guzman, who lives in the Eastside neighborhood. “They’re going through the backyards, looking in people’s garbage and taking out the bottles.’’
Three times, Guzman said, she has had to call police when she saw youth injured in fighting at dismissal time.
“It’s a disaster,’’ said Paterson Schools Commissioner Alex Mendez. “They’re fighting every day outside Eastside High School. You don’t see one police officer outside.’’
“This is not a new situation, but I am concerned about the use of weapons, which is new,’’ said Jonathan Hodges, the senior member of the Board of Education. “This is a dangerous situation, particularly if they graduate from machetes and knives to guns. We’re going to have to stay on top of this as much as we can.’’
The Paterson Police Department’s Community Police Unit used to be assigned to the city’s high schools in the mornings and afternoons when students were leaving. But the Community Police unit was disbanded back in the spring when 125 officers were laid off, said Deputy Chief Danny Nichols.
In the past couple weeks, in response to the problem, police administration has assigned additional officers to Eastside in the afternoons, Nichols said.
In recent years, there were enough police assigned to the streets outside the school to create a “safe corridor,” said state-appointed schools superintendent Donnie Evans said. “This year, that presence is not as great,’’ he said. “Now there is a problem outside the school that we have to address.’’
Paterson Schools Commissioner Pedro Rodriguez blamed the violence on the city’s decision this year to lay off 16 school crossing guards, which has forced authorities to reassign police officers from their regular patrols for an hour in the mornings and an hour in the afternoons to handle crossing duties all over Paterson. That’s the reason there are fewer police officers outside Eastside at dismissal, Rodriguez said.
“At 3 pm when they’re getting out, if you try to call police, the police cannot respond because they’re all crossing the kids,’’ said Rodriguez. “There’s nobody to protect the streets of Paterson.’’
Some schools officials said the fighting involved racial rivalries.
“We have the black and brown issue,’’ said Paterson Schools Commissioner Kenneth Simmons. “It stems from the adult population.”
In fact, last week, a 19-year-old black woman and 18-year-old black man were arrested on bias charged in an attack on a Dominican woman and her two teenagers in a laundromat on Park Avenue, near the high school.
“We’re trying to deal with it before it escalates,’’ said Lt. Richard Reyes, of Paterson’s detective bureau. “It’s not like we’ve been bombarded with reports of black on Dominican or Dominican on black attacks.’’
The fighting outside Eastside is supposed to be the main topic at a meeting of the school district’s Multi-Cultural Roundtable on Thursday at 5 pm at the high school.
A member of the panel, Hani Awadallah of the Arab-American Civic Organization, said parents have become increasingly worried about the violence outside the school. He blamed the incident on a handful of “thugs.’’
Evans emphasized that none of the attacks have happened inside the high school. “Eastside is a safe school,’’ he asserted. “There’s no safer place to be in the city than inside Eastside High School.’’