Volume 81, Number 19 | October 13 -19, 2011
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933
Probe has parents angry, principal in ‘rubber room’
By Aline Reynolds
One of the city’s top-rated schools, located on the Lower East Side, continues to be under intense scrutiny by the city Department of Education for financial improprieties.
Shuang Wen School (P.S. 184M), which boasts high rankings on state achievement tests and high rates of student acceptances in specialized high schools, is being investigated for a slew of possible violations, ranging from improper fundraising to breaches of admissions policies to falsified student records.
The city-led investigations began in 2009, when a small group of parents made complaints about the principal, the school’s Parent Association and the after-school program. While some of the parents suspect financial corruption on the part of school administrators, others allege they and their children were mistreated by the principal and her staff.
“This is about financial malfeasance,” said Edward Primus, whose high school-aged daughter, Nzingha Primus-Carroll, previously attended Shuang Wen, at 327 Cherry St. “There seems to be a co-mingling of funds between the school and the after-school program.”
Specifically, Primus is accusing the school’s Parent Association of illegally transferring $81,000 to SWAN, an organization that runs an after-school program for the students. The city is also looking into SWAN’s improper charges to parents, plus questionable wire transfers by school administrators to two companies based in China.
Neither school officials nor SWAN were available for comment.
Another parent who requested anonymity said the principal used intimidation tactics to operate the school in a manner she saw fit.
“The way they run the school was communist,” said the parent. “The principal liked her way, and the teachers were scared of her. They had no free speech to do their own way of teaching.”
As a result of the monetary allegations, Shung Wen’s General School Fund and Parent Association bank accounts were frozen last May; and Principal Ling Ling Chou was ousted from her position and transferred to a “rubber room” in July.
According to the Department of Education, whose Office of Special Investigations is probing the charges, the funds would continue to remain unusuable for the time being, pending the outcome of the financial audits.
Meanwhile, other school parents are concened that the investigation is negatively impact the school. Extracurricular events, such as the eighth graders’ annual field trip to China — for which the parents had raised $100,000 — was cancelled last spring. Vivian Chan’s 14-year-old son, Joshua, was one of the 2010-’11 eighth graders that missed out on the trip.
“My son was born here, and he has never been to China,” said Chan, with disappointment.
Shuang Wen is bilingual, with courses in both English and Mandarin.
“It was discouraging,” Chan said. “This is the day we were waiting for. He and his friends hoped one day they can go to China and practice all the words they learned.”
The freezing of funds is also compromising the children’s daily enrichment activities and scholarship opportunities, according to the parents.
“Everything — down from buying water for the children — we were not allowed to do,” said Trinh Eng, a Parent Association member. “For the D.O.E. to kind of unilaterally deny the use of this money, without any input of parents and without considering the impact on the children, is just outrageous.”
“This is 100 percent parent funding which the D.O.E. has confiscated and given us no reason or timeline for when it can be released,” said parent Diana Chen. “They have absolutely no right to do this. We absolutely want a level of respect that’s consistent with the amount of investment that the school and parents have put into this school.”
More generally, Chen and other parents are brimming with anger over what they deem to be endless investigations that are “harming” their school. In June, a group of them filed a class action lawsuit against D.O.E., charging the department with “overzealous and punitive actions” and unlawful searches of files and interrogation of children. The court papers also request that Chou be immediately reassigned as principal and that D.O.E. disclose information to the school about the investigations.
The parents received bad news last month, when U.S. District Court denied their request to have the court intervene in D.O.E.’s investigations of the school.
“I think the court is waiting for D.O.E. and the suit’s defendants to finish and indict Chou, and then they will just dismiss this case,” said Primus.
Chris Siragusa, who has two children at the school, said he’s “outraged” at the amount of time D.O.E. has taken to look into the allegations.
“If there was any wrongdoing, take the appropriate action, but do it quickly: Do not let this continue to drag on for years on end,” Siragusa said at a rally he and other Shuang Wen parents organized at Tweed Courthouse, D.O.E. headquarters, on Chambers St. on Sept. 30. “It’s wasteful and it’s hurting our children in many, many different ways,” he stressed.
“If there’s been wrongdoing, I’d like to know about it as a parent,” said Laura Gunn, the mother of a first-grader at the school. “There’s been no transparency in the investigative process, which I find totally un-American.”
Gunn is particularly angry with the way in which Chou was replaced over the summer.
“She was removed in such a sudden, dramatic fashion, and it wasn’t explained well,” she said. “It’s hard for the children to understand why someone who cared about them so greatly — and who their own parents respected so greatly — would suddenly be removed in that matter.”
Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott has declined to meet with the school or parents. In a letter Walcott sent to the Shuang Wen community earlier this year, he said, “I understand your concerns, but a meeting regarding this matter is not appropriate while the investigations are ongoing. We will conclude the investigations as quickly as we can.”
Parents are also objecting to the way in which students were pulled from their classrooms for questioning by D.O.E. personnel following a Lunar New Year performance last spring. Eng said her son, upon witnessing the interrogations, feared being targeted, too.
“We never signed up our children to be a part of some experiement we weren’t told of,” Eng protested. “To stretch something like this into certain powers that should only be used rarely, and use that in reference to a cultural performance, is just unbelievable.”
Meanwhile, Chou, who has been reassigned to administrative duties, is in working conditions that her attorney described as a “Siberia for disgraced principals…where she does nothing except twiddle her thumbs.”
“It’s disgusting,” her attorney said. “It’s deteriorating, in an awful sense.”
Chou also plans to pursue legal action supporting the parents’ lawsuit and, purporting not to have committed any financial wrongdoing, that she be reinstated as principal of Shuang Wen School.