The system breaks down, Roosevelt Islanders stand up

PS/IS 217 & Rats, Heroes and Villains - What the hell were they thinking?

Updated 23 weeks ago Peter McCarthy
Last month, before the story broke, a common scene of food trash left out for rats and a car parked illegally, blocking DOS pick up.
Last month, before the story broke, a common scene of food trash left out for rats and a car parked illegally, blocking DOS pick up.
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily

Hundreds of rats flourish around PS/IS 217. That's bad. What's worse? Plenty. There are the heroes and villains in a battle that should never have seen a single, even metaphorical shot fired. After all, who the hell's going to stick up for rats attacking a public school...? You'd be surprised.

Sound track: Heroes and Villains, the Beach Boys, 1967

In what deceptively seemed like simpler times, we thought we knew who the good guys and bad guys were. One wore black, the other white. Most of us were naive, but even the most cynical among us could not have predicted a spectacle so bizarre it brought TV news reporters twice to Roosevelt Island, first to document PS/IS 217's rat colony and second to show that the Department of Education was lying about it.

But what really makes me shake my head is that Roosevelt Islanders actually took sides over what, if anything, ought be done or even if hundreds of rats living in the school yard was really worth worrying about.

There is only one right position here: you need to be against the rats, no matter who your friends are. There is no viable gray area.

What happened?

At the Roosevelt Island Daily, we began covering this story back in January, trying to figure out why the school hacked down five healthy trees during a Saturday morning snowstorm. Wrecking the environment and disregard for community values are what bothered us, at first.

Then, the rats got introduced.

Although school Principal Mandana Beckman and her staff never responded to our inquiries, even those conveyed through City Council Member Ben Kallos's office, she eventually posted a defense on the PTA's online bulletin board. Among other things, the trees' roots, she wrote, were nesting places for rats.

She later expanded on the need to take down the trees in a letter to the editor of the Main Street WIRE, which had never covered the story. She blamed the roots again for the rats.

But local residents saw it differently. Typically, it's wiser to watch what people do than to rely on what they say. We were watching.

The real culprit for helping the rats, it seemed obvious, was whoever tossed the trash on which they feasted carelessly just outside two school doors, one of them an emergency exit.

It went on, week after week, piles of food waste in easy to chew through plastic bags left out for the rodents, overnight and on weekends.

That's villain (or villains) #1.

It should surprise no one that the rats then did what rats do - feast on the abundant supply of food waste and expand their population rapidly.

It should surprise you that the school continued to feed the rats generously until just last week when public uproar over photos and videos of the rat colony and intervention by RIOC finally convinced them to change.

Is there a critical mass for rats?

Finally, a critical mass of freewheeling rats growing too big to ignore, Frank Farance rattled complacent school officials and the community with  photographs of what can best be described as an undisturbed rodent community frolicking in the yard next to PS/IS 217.

More than a dozen gaping holes in the soil aligned the wall outside the school's cafeteria, demonstrating that the rats were not hiding out in tree roots. They were almost close enough to take classes inside.

Hundreds of rodents were under and around the building where they had easy access to food left out, nearly every day, overnight and on weekends.

Farance diligently copied every official and any organization he thought could help eradicate the burgeoning health hazard. He warned every parent he knew by posting to the Roosevelt Island Parents' Network.

For his efforts, our first designated hero caught immediate flack.

From the Common Council, where Farance is an alternate from Island House, sarcastic abuse was flung at him by Aaron Hamburger, Chairman of the Island Services committee.

Farance's crime? 

Let's let Hamburger speak for himself: "You are out-of-line. Yes, your e-mail should be sent to members of RIRA's Island Services Committee (ISC), but not to the rest of the 'world'."

Hamburgers rebuke was, you guessed it, sent "to the rest of the 'world.'"

On the Parents' Network, administrators struggled to find balance between parents who were happy to be informed and others who wanted Farance shut up. One angry mom called other mothers expressing concerns about their children's exposure to the rats "morons."

Complying with rules for their discussion threads, admins had no choice but to revoke his right to post freely after receiving a required number of complaints. They did, however, forward future information to the group after receiving it from him.

Official Reaction

While RIRA's assuming a passive role was not unexpected, PS/IS 217 Principal Mandana Beckman's response was startling. That is, as far as anyone can tell, she did nothing more than call in her supporters to circle the wagons for protection.

Beckman allowed the school's practice of leaving food waste in out for the rats to continue without interruption. A large pile was eagerly consumed by fattened up rats over the long Memorial Day weekend.

The rats, as accumulating photographs and videos showed, deeply appreciated the school's generosity, gorging on the easy meals, frolicking all around the grounds and, eventually, onto the playground.

Beckman's gang of villains included the PTA - Head scratch: aren't the children supposed to come first? - and the witless Main Street WIRE, which loaded its front and another full page with a defense mounted by the Principal.

At no point, there or anywhere else, does Beckman acknowledge any blame for the disaster building outside her school. On the contrary, she points her Manhattan Park, which does not leave food waste outside, and the Island in general.

In the meantime, PS/IS 217's rat population exploded.

RIOC's Susan Rosenthal Steps In

Wouldn't it be great if we could tell a story about how various city officials, elected and appointed, rushed into action as soon as they saw Farance's photos? Sure, but we can't.

City Council Member Ben Kallos was unable to get corrective action from the school or DOE headquarters. Manhattan Borough President Gale A. Brewer went AWOL. Mayor de Blasio's office? School Commissioner Carmen Fariña? Invisible.

To date, only Susan Rosenthal, RIOC's President and CEO, got involved. What makes her one of the heroes is that, as a state official, Rosenthal has no authority over the school. Or responsibility for its behavior.

But she convened a meeting with Beckman, anyway, and offered to do whatever RIOC could, even volunteering resources, to help eradicate the rats.

Because the DOE, as they later did with the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, declined any assistance offered, all that changed was the careless tossing of garbage out for the rats to feast on.

I know - a public school needed to be told not to leave garbage out when an infestation was in full display? Afraid so.

And the DOE's excuse for refusing aid? There was no problem, and if there was, it was someone else's fault. Or maybe, the bureaucrats were just too busy shuffling papers to have their feathers ruffled.

Up To Date

Roosevelt Islander blog publisher Rick O'Conor unhesitatingly published Farance's photographs and opinions. But O'Conor played community hero too by taking it a step farther, using contacts developed over eight years of publishing about local matters to get coverage beyond Roosevelt Island.

Online newspaper dna info published a story on Monday, in its Upper East Side/Roosevelt Island edition, and by midmorning, WCBS Channel 2 had a reporter and a cameraman on the scene, interviewing Farance, parents and children outside PS/IS 217.

The rats happily obliged, cavorting openly for the camera.

Managers from the Roosevelt Island Day Nursery came out to talk to the news crew about their worries. Pre-schoolers in their charge were being exposed to real dangers, just fifteen feet away across a emergency vehicle access lane from the school.

On camera, they talked about seeing dozens of rats at time, feasting and frolicking in broad daylight.

Then, in a bit of serendipity, Island Historian Judy Berdy happened by.

Berdy looked straight into the lens.

"I've lived here for forty years," she said. "We've never had anything like this. Even when they took down Goldwater Hospital, there were no rats."

After Channel 2 reported as a lead in their 6:00 o'clock newscast, the DOE disclaimed any responsibility. The rats came from elsewhere and were everywhere on the Island, nothing exceptional at the school.

Next day, Channel 2 returned. Farance took them to visit the AVAC facility the majority of Roosevelt Island buildings use to safely dispose of food waste. And then, they took a walk around the Island.

They were unable to find any other rats.

And the school? Reports filtered out that PS/IS 217 personnel instructed children and parents not to talk with anyone from the media, especially about the rats.

Farance has called for Beckman's resignation as well as that of the PTA's leadership. So far, neither has accepted his invitation.

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