A School Is More Than STEM Learning

PS/IS 217 Secures Its Claim As Roosevelt Island's Worst Neighbor

Updated 4 weeks ago Peter McCarthy
At PS/IS 217, cars don't just block the fire lane, they're also allowed to prevent access for trash removal, keeping the rats fed and happy. Yes, those are rat holes aligning the concrete slab.
At PS/IS 217, cars don't just block the fire lane, they're also allowed to prevent access for trash removal, keeping the rats fed and happy. Yes, those are rat holes aligning the concrete slab.
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily

Frank Farance's scathing post in the Roosevelt Islander blog, describing PS/IS 217's north-facing yard as a rat playground and worse sent us back for a look at a story that started when Westview's Ron Musto alerted us that the school was destroying healthy trees.

The scene was hard to believe, snow falling on a Saturday morning just after the New Year. You could hear it before you saw it. Buzzing chain saws had already taken down most of the healthy twenty year old trees. The remains were being mulched. Sawdust mixed with the fresh snow.

In September, we noticed that a memorial tree planted in honor or Roosevelt Island Pioneer Alice children had mysteriously disappeared from the same area, leaving a plaque in her honor orphaned.

Now, the rest of the trees were gone too. Why chop down healthy trees? The cynical answer was that the school was clearing the way for more free parking for its employees and visitors, cars already being allowed by RIOC Public Safety to clog a fire lane separating the school from 2 and 4 River Road.

School Principal Mandana Beckman responded, sort of, but time has shown that the cynics may very well be right.

Beckman's Response

Beckman never responded directly to the article we published. Instead, she posted a note on the PTA's discussion board. The trees, she wrote, were in danger of falling on the school, and their roots created a "trip hazard" near emergency exits. Children evacuating would be forced to walk all the way through the school to use a safer exit.

The roots, also, she said, were a nesting ground for the rat population that has plagued the area for years.

Her reasoning for chopping down the trees was later published in a Letter to the Editor in the Main Street WIRE, which never carried any stories about the trees or the orphaning of Alice Childress's memorial.

Before taking up the rat issue, there are several problems with Beckman's story, among them that she never documented any dangers of the trees falling on the school. As the Roosevelt Island Tree Board's leader Ali Schwayri noted independently, the trees were healthy and in need of nothing more than pruning. The Tree Board maintains a contemporary record of all trees on the Island.

"Trip hazards?" It's true that numerous roots protrude above the surface. Whether they constitute a serious danger is anyone's guess, but the situation is far from new. Whatever roots were exposed had been so for years. But even if they are somewhat hazardous, aren't there better solutions than the wholesale slaughter of five healthy trees? A simple foot bridge would probably have cost us less than the destruction of trees.

But what makes it all worse is that the roots, supposedly the main source of dangers, were not removed along with the trees. More than four months later, whatever hazard they once were they still are. But the really bad part of this story is that PS/IS 217's action actually increased hazards by leaving five big tree stumps protruding six to nine inches above ground, more hazardous than the roots ever were.

But it gets even worse. Honest. Free parking for two dozen cars, already a safety hazard being ignored by RIOC's Public Safety Department for God only knows what reason, was soon extended to allow as many as three deep on the school's lawn, blocking emergency exiting for children and teachers far more effectively than any roots ever did.

To all this, the school, RIOC, the PTA, City Council Member Ben Kallos, Borough President Gale A. Brewer and the Board of Education have chosen blindness over concern or corrective action. 

Then Came the Rats

That's a little misleading. The rats have always been there. Any of us walking regularly on the promenade have been treated to rats commuting between the school and the river. But as Farance documents with photographs, the situation has grown from nuisance to intolerable.

Still no reaction from the school or those responsible for public safety and healthful conditions for children as well as the school's neighbors. The callous disregard for community standards, from unnecessarily destroying trees to setting up a 24X7 smorgasbord for rats is unlike anything we've ever seen on Roosevelt Island.

Just to be sure, I walked up the fire lane two days after Farance published his post about the rat problem. He was also concerned about cars being allowed to park up and down the fire lane, some with permission slips from the school's principal. The fire lane is not school property, and Beckman has no authority to endanger the community with her signature.

In spite of Farance's widely distributed report, nothing changed. In fact, most of the cars in the fire lane didn't even have Beckman's permission slips. They just park freely, and Public Safety looks the other way. 

And, you guessed it, just as Farance noted and as you can see from the above photo, cars block the trash pick up point which explains why plastic trash bags are always piled up, including every weekend, to the delight of the rat metropolis.

Will anyone in authority step up and do something? We know the school will invest in nothing more than excuses and explanations. 

Do we need the wakeup call of a fire or other event made worse because of PS/IS 217's lax behavior before anyone steps up to their responsibilities? 

It's time. No, it's past time.

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