It’s the call parents never want to get. Never should get. But, on October 22, Aquila Stevens received a call from the school nurse at John F. Kennedy School in Newark. Her son Akil had been in an accident. He was injured and would be taken to University Hospital. Akil is the younger brother of Marques-Aquil Lewis, a member of the elected Newark board of education.
When she found him in the emergency room, Akil’s mother was furious. She wanted to know how her 10-year-old son could have fallen down a flight of eleven stairs when an aide is supposed to be with him all the time. She wasn’t happy at the answer she received–Akil had been left alone in a school hallway. Maybe only for a moment–but that moment was long enough.
Akil’s older brother, Marques-Aquil Lewis, put the blame squarely on the central administration, saying Newark school aides have been targeted by Cami Anderson, the state-appointed superintendent. Many have been laid off and replaced by inexperienced workers without the necessary training.
Lewis also accused Anderson of not caring about the children of the city schools.
“You would think she would have reached out to Akil’s mother,” said Lewis. “But she didn’t. She didn’t care about what happened to him. She didn’t talk to his mother to find out how he was.”
And Anderson knew about what happened to Akil, Lewis said. “I personally told her right after it happened,” he said. “She just didn’t care.”
Lewis said Anderson’s behavior contrasted with that of Glenda Johnson-Green, the school’s principal. He said the principal immediately dismissed the aide who had left Akil alone at the top of a stairway. He also said Johnson-Green personally visited the child and his mother.
“She has been very professional about this form the very moment it happened,” said Lewis.
This is how Aquila Stevens posted the news on her Facebook page: “Cn sum1 tell Mii how did mi son fall dwn 11 stairs @ Skool n his aid is alwayz wit him…”
The John F. Kennedy School enrolls students with autism and multiple disabilities. Like his schoolmates, Akil is a special needs student. He suffers from cerebral palsy and is strapped into his wheelchair. He is supposed to have an aide with him all the time he is in school.
When his wheelchair crashed down the stairs, Akil was not thrown out of it. With the chair attached to him, the little boy hurtled down the stairs, bouncing against the steps, hitting his head, his face, his knees and his elbows.
“His nose and his top lip were swollen,” Stevens told me in a FB message. “His chest was bruised. His elbow had a know. Both knees swollen.”
Akil was hurting. And he was scared.
After hours in the hospital, he was allowed to go home.
His mother is torn about what she should believe about sending her son to school. She wants to be confident that he will be safe. “But I’m worried, too,” she wrote.
Like most public schools in Newark, John F. Kennedy has suffered from budget cuts under the state administration of Gov. Chris Christie and state-appointed superintendent Cami Anderson. According to budget documents, the total budget for the school was cut 2.5 percent this year.
However, a closer look shows that much of that cut was in the budget for the multiply handicapped children like Akil. The total budget cut for this group was 3.9 percent–including a reduction of 10 percent in salaries for instructional personnel other than teachers.
System-wide, the Christie/Anderson administration of the Newark schools faces a $60 million budget deficit. Despite these problems, Anderson was awarded a new contract this year.
Anderson’s administration also has been the target of a number of state and federal complaints filed on behalf of children with special needs. Her “One Newark” plan, while favoring privatized charter schools, concentrates on keeping special education students in under-resourced public schools.
Critics of her school reorganization plan warn it endangers children. Parents have warned the chaos it has created since September could endanger the lives and safety of the city’s children.