PATERSON, NJ – Khadijah Smith went to her son’s school on Monday to drop off some pizza for his lunch. The 36-year-old parent ended up leaving the building in handcuffs after being arrested on charges that she committed aggravated assault for striking a teacher.
And it all stemmed from an incident earlier in the morning when Smith’s son, a seventh grader, passed gas while he and other students were taking the New Jersey Assessment of Skills and Knowledge (NJ ASK) standardized statewide test. Other students in the class laughed.
That much everyone seems to agree upon. What happened in between the pizza and the handcuffs is a matter of dispute.
Smith said her son’s teacher had called her about the classroom disruption and Smith said she told the teacher would deal with her child when he got home from school. Her subsequent visit, Smith said, was simply to drop off the pizza at 137 Ellison Street, which is where upper grade students at Frank Napier School attend class while the regular Napier building undergoes repairs.
While she was at the school, Smith said, she ran into the principal, Rosalie Bespalko, in the hallway. The principal told her that her son was pulled from the testing and would have to retake the test some other time, Smith said.
The police report says that Bespalko asked a teacher, 55-year-old William Pursley, to join her conversation with the parent. Purlsey said the youth was purposely farting, according to the police report. The teacher and parent began arguing, the report says. Smith then stuck her finger in Pursley’s face and told him he did not know who he was “messing with,’’ according to the report.
The report says Smith assaulted Purlsey as he moved away, and the teacher “sustained a minor scratch near his left eye and on his left forearm.’’ The report does not say exactly how Smith assaulted Pursley. The report says that Purlsey’s version was confirmed by several school employees, including Bespalko, who witnessed the incident.
But Smith gives a different account. She says the teacher intervened in her conversation with the principal without being invited into the discussion. She said she was trying to explain to Bespalko that sometimes her son passes gas because he cannot control himself. At that point, she said Pursley stepped in and said her comments reflected a common problem, that too many parents condone their children’s bad behavior.
During their discussion, Smith said, the teacher cursed at her. She then began speaking with her hands directed towards Pursley’s face when the teacher pushed her hands aside, Smith said. At that point, Smith said, she hit the teacher’s forearm.
School employees then called police. Smith was arrested and said she was held in custody until 8 pm on Monday. During an appearance at municipal court on Tuesday morning, Smith said she was told the case against her would be referred to Superior Court to determine if it was an indictable offense.
Meanwhile, Smith said she has filed simple assault charges against Pursley.
It was not clear whether the school district was taking any action regarding the simply assault charge filed against Purlsey. When asked about that in an email, district spokeswoman Terry Corallo said, “We will not comment on the charges brought against the parent at this time as this is currently a legal matter.’’
Some community activists say the school district overreacted by calling in police and authorities overreacted by filling aggravated assault charges against Smith. They also said the incident highlighted the poor relationship between many parents in the city and school staff members.
“I don’t see the reason for what they did,’’ said one activist, Quincy Battis, who said he has known Smith for about 25 years. “Did she come into the school with a pistol or a knife? No. She only wanted to drop off the pizza.’’
Battis argued that the conversation should have been between just the parent and the principal and should have been held in the principal's office, for privavcy."he butted in,'' Battis said. "He just added fuel to the fire.''
“To us, this arrest was another form of violence against the community,’’ said Bilal Hakeem, of the Power Coalition, a city activist group.
Corallo would not comment on the activists’ assertions. She said Smith’s son would take the NJ ASK test on Wednesday.