The town hall meeting on March 1 at PS 193/Gil Hodges elementary school in Brooklyn was marred by conflict all night. The battle lines were drawn between those who support the school’s principal, Tami Flynn, and those who are fighting for her removal. And it showed how quickly conflicts can escalate when a school community can’t resolve its differences.
Early on, a pro-Flynn faculty member yelled at an anti-Flynn parent for filming the meeting, threatening police intervention if the video wasn’t erased. Later, Jennifer Brown, co-president of the PS 193 Parents Association— the group that had called the meeting—took the floor and spoke for longer than the two minutes allotted to each speaker. Flynn’s supporters, a vocal minority consisting of parents and staff that filled the last three rows of the auditorium, started shouting in protest. Brown’s husband stood up. “This is my wife, she can talk as long as she wants,” he shouted. The Flynn supporters shouted back. The meeting was a visible sign of a bitter divide.
Problems at the school had surfaced about a week earlier. The Parent’s Association, in fact, ostensibly organized the meeting to discuss the incident that had set things off. The Association’s treasurer, Vincent Nemorin, says that a faculty member refused his second-grade son access to the bathroom back in February. When Nemorin arrived at the school at the end of the day, he says, he found that his son had soiled himself and had never been cleaned up. Then, on the morning of February 24, he approached the school to confront the faculty member. He ended up in handcuffs, sitting on the sidewalk by a police van in front of the school. With, he says, a slight concussion.
But at the heart of the conflict is a difference of opinion over the performance of PS 193’s principal, Tami Flynn. To her detractors, the Nemorin incident is indicative of Flynn’s hostile leadership, which they say is based on retaliation, personal vendettas, and a closed-door policy that shuts parents out of the school. To her supporters, however, Nemorin’s incident was an unfortunate exception to Flynn’s otherwise friendly and open record as principal. The real bullies, they say, are the members of the Parent’s Association.
The conflict has only grown more divisive as time has passed, providing an example of how disagreements and mistrust in a school community can lead to something more damaging.
Some parents complain that, after Flynn became principal, programming diminished at PS 193. The music program dissolved and there were fewer performances and concerts to bring families into the building. The Gifted and Talented program, a citywide program for advanced students, was hit the hardest. In the 2014-2015 school year, French classes were cut from the program, upsetting many parents. “One of the reasons we chose PS 193 was simply because they had the French curriculum,” Nemorin said.
Nemorin says he led the charge to restore the French program. He organized a group of parents, and together, they voiced their concerns at school leadership meetings. The French program was restored in part, meeting once a week instead of the usual twice a week. But Nemorin believes that his leadership made an enemy out of Flynn. “They were asking valid questions,” Nemorin said of his team. “And for that, I was blamed, and I was seen as an agitator.”
This past school year, Nemorin was elected to be the treasurer of the Parent’s Association. At the same time, Nemorin’s son began having numerous bathroom-related incidents. “The bathroom issue did not begin until this year and that was because I had become the treasurer of the Parents Association,” he said. He said that before his arrest, he had received special accommodations for his child to use the bathroom without restriction from superintendent Julia Bove. A list of parent concerns about Flynn distributed by the Association says that other children have also been denied bathroom usage.
Two videos surfaced after Nemorin’s arrest. One, taken by Nemorin, shows his confrontation with the faculty member. “You make sure you never impede his path again,” Nemorin warns the faculty member. As Nemorin walks away, a woman who he identifies as Flynn tries to stop him. “Let’s have a conversation,” she says. “Go back to New Jersey,” Nemorin responds, continuing to walk away.
Nemorin claims that he then left to go to work. Later, he says he received a phone call. “I was told, ‘there is an emergency concerning your child at the school, please come back to the school,’” Nemorin said. When he returned, he says, police officers were waiting for him. In a second video, taken by a witness, Nemorin stands calmly as the officers handcuff him. As he approaches the police van, he appears to slip, and begins screaming, “my head!”
(Nemorin arrested in front of PS 193. Original video post credited to YouTube user yuminemorin)
One officer in the video responds that he didn’t see Nemorin hit his head. Nemorin said the injury wasn’t serious, but that a CAT scan revealed a minor concussion. “The principal, who’s been criticized recently over her conduct, her policies, her attitudes—I think that she might have overresponded, overreacted, to a legitimate claim from a parent,” said Stephen Flanhaft, Nemorin’s attorney.
Brown and other Association members say that at a February 25 meeting Flynn admitted to calling the police to deal with Nemorin. But parents who were at the meeting say that she has contradicted herself, and it remains unclear as to who called the police—or whether doing so was proper protocol. Brown and other Association leaders met with the District 22 superintendent, Julia Bove, on March 8. Brown said their policy questions were not answered. “What are the protocols in place for when a police officer is notified?” she asked. “I must have asked this five times and never got an answer.” Flynn was not available for multiple requests for comment by phone. A receptionist for Julia Bove said that there was no information being released to the press. A spokesperson for the Department of Education did not answer specific questions on policing protocol and referred only to the circumstances involving Nemorin. “We take this allegation seriously, and are investigating the matter,” the spokesperson said.
Police officers have been a common presence in schools since the Giuliani administration, which dissolved school security into the police department, according to Eric Nadelstern, a professor of educational leadership at Columbia University’s Teacher’s College. However, it is unusual for a school to call the police on a parent. “If a school staff member feels that their safety is in jeopardy, generally they notify a supervisor, and the supervisor notifies a school safety agent,” Nadelstern said. This agent decides if police will get involved.
The greater concern for the school, however, is the aftermath. “You would hope that what happens in this circumstance is that the principal in a PA meeting explains the circumstance,” Nadelstern said. “If that doesn’t happen, that’s the principal’s fault.” And according to Brown, this hasn’t happened. “She was told that she could not make a statement or a comment on the matter,” Brown said in a text message.
Brown claims that as many as two other parents have also had police officers called on them. NY City Lens could not confirm these cases. However, Georgina Doody, a grandmother of a PS 193 student, claims she and three other parents were recently escorted out of the building by 15 police officers. Doody and the others tried to attend the February 25 meeting where Flynn allegedly took responsibility for calling the police. They said they had heard that the meeting was open to the public, but upon arriving, were denied entry, and the officers came up to escort them out. “It was kind of intimidating,” Doody recalls.
Stacia Gregorio was outside the school when the police arrived. She took a video, dated on February 25, that shows at least 14 officers entering the building, and provided that video to NY City Lens.
“Parents are afraid to speak up because they know she is going to retaliate,” Brown said.
Flynn’s supporters agree that the climate at PS 193 has become more hostile. However, they blame the Parents Association.
Dorian Rodriguez, a parent at PS 193 and a supporter of Flynn’s, dismisses the notion that Flynn is unwelcoming or retaliatory. Rodriguez says that she has had numerous incidents with her child that have led to heated discussions, but that they never end poorly. Once, she said, her son was being bullied before picture day and ended up with a bump in his head. She says she approached the school angrily but tried to carry herself professionally and ultimately resolved the issue. “I’m upset, plain and simple,” Rodriguez said. “I go to Miss Flynn, her door was open.” Rodriguez believes that Nemorin’s advance was aggressive, and the fact that he chose to record it shows that the confrontation was premeditated.
Rodriguez also thinks the Parents Association is motivated by personal agendas. “I know Vinny pretty well. Him and Miss Flynn have a history,” she said. “I believe he used his son as a pawn to get to Miss Flynn.”
She added that many parents who support Flynn had never heard of any other complaints about the school before Nemorin’s arrest. “When one of their own members becomes arrested, all of a sudden all of these bad things about the school are coming out,” she said.
Other parents say they believe that the principal has a positive influence on the school. Alexis Regnier, a pro-Flynn parent, cites the fact that Flynn stands outside to greet the children every morning. “Rain, sleet, snow, shine, she is out there,” Regnier said. Regnier recalls how her child came late to last year’s annual Halloween parade, where the children are taken down the streets surrounding the school to show off their costumes to the neighborhood. Though the parade had ended, Flynn stayed out to walk Regnier’s child around herself. “This is what leadership is. Leadership is actually joining the line,” Regnier said.
Rodriguez and Regnier believe that the Association’s reaction to Nemorin’s arrest has been misguided and distracting. After Nemorin’s arrest, the Association announced on its Facebook page that it would rally outside the school every day until Nemorin’s first court appearance on March 17, and for the most part, they kept their word. “It’s one thing to voice your opinion and say, ‘I want to get rid of Tami Flynn,’” Rodriguez said. “It’s another thing to tear down the school.” Regnier pointed out that the bulk of the rallies took place during “Literacy Week” at the school, where parents volunteer to go read to the kids. “They were outside protesting instead of being upstairs in the library reading to the kids,” she said. “They say it is for the children, but what is this proof?”
Both sides believe that the hostile environment is hurting the children, but disagree over who is at fault. “They’re terrified at this point,” Brown said of her own children, citing a fear of police presence. “Teachers have contacted me anonymously and are terrified.” Rodriguez says that her son used to walk quickly to school, excited to start his day, but that seeing the Association’s rallies have made him tense. “He walks a little bit slower,” she said. “It just wasn’t like that before, because there’s such a separation between the parents.”
Carolyn Riehl, an associate professor of Sociology and Education Policy at Columbia’s Teacher College, said that situations like this, where potential litigation is involved, hurt trust in a school because superiors often silence school officials. “You’re no longer free to just say anything, including the truth,” she said. “Unfortunately, it’s just these kinds of situations where communication is so important and might help to diffuse the situation.” She added that research shows that trust in schools is important to create productive learning environments. “It’s much easier to break trust than to build trust,” she said.
Councilman Jumaane Williams, who was at the town hall meeting on March 1, must have understood those stakes. After Brown’s husband stood up to defend her, Williams tried to restore the peace, asking the children in attendance to stand up. “We love you,” he told them. The crowd nodded in agreement. But it didn’t last. An anti-Flynn parent made a comment about the pro-Flynn faculty members in attendance, and several stormed out of the room. The meeting ended with nothing resolved.