By PRICILLA FERRERAS
During the spring, a video made a big splash on social media of a small teenage girl nearly getting beat to death at a Brooklyn McDonald’s on Flatbush Avenue, where a crowd didn’t step in to help but instead, cheered them on and used their phones to record it. The gang-style assault involved six girls, all who attend the near-by high school, Erasmus Hall. It isn’t the first time this incident has occurred after school hours at a local fast food joint.
“That fight was nothing new,” said Casey Johnson, 25, the manager in a peach-colored shirt, monitoring the workers closely as they quickly worked through taking customers’ orders. “Happens all the time. Except this one went up on Facebook and went viral. That’s the only difference.”
The incident raised the issue of whether the high school offers after school activities once classes are over for the day. Are there alternatives to fast-food restaurants and stores as hang out spots? When different teenage age groups or cliques hang together in the same place, it can potentially turn into a pot waiting to boil over with arguments and disputes. Erasmus Hall High School, which is organized into four small schools each with a different specialty, it is not clear whether there are enough programs available to students who have idle time on their hands.
“They know they can’t fight in here, because security will step in, so they all take it out to the fast food joints,” said Johanna Brown, 35, a security guard at High School for Youth and Community Development in Erasmus for six years. “The school isn’t doing enough to provide for the kids afterschool.”
Many community advocates in Flatbush, including Tony Herbert, the longtime voice for Flatbush residents, have pledged to do everything they could to prevent another brutal gang beat down from occurring in the neighborhood.
“I am sick and tired in being in a position where our children are using a McDonald’s as a recreational facility,” activist Herbert said gesturing with his hands. “The message to students must be sent very clearly, from their schools and parents, that this kind of violence will not be tolerated whether in the street or in fast food restaurants. Their future depends on it.”
Herbert, dressed in a brown flannel suit with a hint of a smile, said he recently joined other members of the community outside the McDonald’s at 943 Flatbush Avenue to announce the creation of the “One Family One Community” initiative, which he said will help connect after-school programs with funding, as well as help students from Erasmus with college scholarships and other mentoring opportunities.
Marie Prendergast, principal of Erasmus High School for Youth and Community Development at Erasmus said in a phone interview that she is disappointed that the violent incident occurred but refuses to let it occur ever again. “I am currently using it as a stepping stone to show the Department of Education that schools need substantial funding,” said Prendergast. “I am currently working on a bigger yearly budget for our school overall so we can implement a variety of afterschool programs to meet the needs of our students.”
Andrea Cunningham, 37, a Guidance Counselor for High School for Youth and Community Development at Erasmus, says she is currently working on mentoring students to use their time wisely beyond the campus. “I reached out to the parents of the girls involved in the brawl at McDonalds to discuss the aftermath and what to do next,” said Cunningham. “I am also making proposals to the principal to encourage the Department of Education to provide more funding for all the schools in Erasmus. So far they haven’t been responding, but it’s the effort that counts.”
A study conducted by Students Against Destructive Decisions in NYC found that 46 percent of teens in public high schools with a mentor reported a high “sense of self,” versus 25 percent of teens without a mentor. Cunningham said that those teens feel more positive about their own identity, and have healthier relationships with their peers than do teens with a low sense of self.
“I want to be a guidance counselor to the students, more than just helping them with course selection,” said Cunningham. “Currently, I encourage all of my colleagues to reach out to their students to see what mental and physical state there in. Also, I am working on having the deans report back to us with verbal and physical fights that occur in the hallways and lunchroom in order to consult students about the dispute and come to a calm resolution with all parties involved.”
The Church Avenue Merchants’ Association is a non-profit agency that offers services and programs in education and youth development, family support and children’s counseling. The Afterschool Program coordinator, Shonda Williams, 27, is currently reaching out to Erasmus facility members in hopes to aid their students with afterschool activities.
“Since multiple schools are located in Erasmus Hall, there are few resources for the individual schools because funding is based on the number of students currently enrolled,” said Williams. “CAMBA and I are currently in the process of working with the school that the six girls belonged to, to create minimum rage paid programs after school, such as tutoring and also recreation activities such as dance, clubs and much more.”
The Flatbush Development Corporation (FDC) provides positive social and academic learning opportunities such as job fairs to promote self-confidence, creativity, and civic awareness among youth in the Flatbush community. It also has been a safe haven for many Erasmus Hall Students for many years, even before news of the brawl broke.
David Smith, 29, coach of the basketball team organized by FDC, dressed in basketball shorts and a headband, said the FDC also runs football and tennis teams. There are other recreation activities offered afterschool such as movie day, video games, homework help, and tutoring in a variety of subjects.
“Many of the youths that come here where in the McDonalds the day that fight broke out,” said Smith. “Many said they couldn’t intervene because they were scared for their own lives. Our team here is working harder than ever to advertise at the campus the wonderful activities we have here to keep students occupied after dismissal.”
A cop from the 70th precinct, Officer Steve Pernelli, was getting coffee on a lunch break inside Flatbush Best Deli. Pernelli, while shaking his head in disgust, wasn’t surprised about the brawl that happened in McDonald’s that day. He says it is a common scenario during after school hours for the avenue strip and his supervisor and colleagues are working even harder to prevent aggressive outbreaks from happening ever again.
“Our precinct constantly is in contact with administration department of Erasmus to warn students to go straight home after school,” said Officer Pernelli. “Since the brawl going viral, the deans in particular, have asked us each day after school for our precinct to send out cops to help lead a calm dismissal and ensure that students don’t use fast-food restaurants for their recreational purposes.”
Waiting outside the school for her son to get dismissed from school, Crystal Rodriguez, 38, stood outside with a sun dress, shades, and a hat on, patiently waiting to pick her son up, who’s a freshman. Rodriquez expressed her concerns that there’s unwanted gang activity in Erasmus that she wants her child to be no part of. She waits for her son after school to ensure he doesn’t get mixed up with the wrong crowd. Although, her son, Kevin Gebon, 14, recently made try-outs for High School for Youth and Community Development’s football team, which was briefly on a break.
“The Department of Education recently awarded the team $10,000 to continue their season,” Rodriquez said excitedly. “It’s a good sport to keep him occupied after school and not on the streets.”
Shanice Davis, 15, a current sophomore exiting the campus after a long day of school, said that she doesn’t feel safe after school hours, and that it is the norm for groups of gangs and cliques to roam the streets of Flatbush Avenue looking for trouble.
“I’ve witnessed a boy from my grade walk up to an old man and just lay him out with a sucker punch,” said Davis. “Many of the gangs that go to my school also get into verbal disputes at the nearby Burger King and McDonalds which most of the time escalates into a violent fist fights.”
A junior walking out of the local KFC fast food joint, stood outside briefly observing the busy streets filled with many students from Erasmus Hall. When asked why she is isolated on such a warm, beautiful day, she had quite a response.
“I usually grab a bite to eat and go home to be honest, said Tishana Moore, 17, a junior of High School for Service and Learning at Erasmus Hall. “My friends are always looking to lollygag on the corner and in different stores. If there was a dance program offered at my school I would join. But since there isn’t, I go home to do homework.”
Selena Gomez, 45, a parent of a sophomore who attends High School for Youth and Community Development, the same school which girls from the gang-style attack attend, said that she fears for her daughter’s safety after school hours. She is aware that many students from the campus resort to stores and fast food joints for recreational purposes. She has signed up her daughter, Kayla Gomez, 15, for the step team at The Flatbush Youth Association, in hopes that she would focus on her school work and stay out of trouble.
“I just hope the campus pursues offering extracurricular activities for their students, because I had to pursue an activity for my child outside of the school,” Gomez said as she ran her fingers through her hair. “The incident that occurred at that McDonalds is every parent’s worst nightmare.”
Walking down the hallway, as she warmly greets fellow students who are fond of her, guidance counselor Andrea Cunningham says she isn’t happy about the video of the fight at McDonald’s going viral in news headlines, but she believes it’s what took the school facility overall to wake up.
“If it took a violent, angry mob of girls fighting to get the attention of our school officials, then so be it,” said Cunningham. “But rest assure that the school facility and I have been working every day to get the funding from the DOE to give these teenagers the resources they need to be successful.”