BY THE VILLAGE SUN | Cooper Union parents and students, joined by a city councilmember, on Thursday demanded school President Laura Sparks be fired, charging she is not addressing rising anti-Semitism on campus that is threatening Jewish students’ safety.
Also with them was a lawyer, who said he plans to sue both The Cooper Union and pro-Palestinian demonstrators who, the day before, had allegedly cornered a group of Jewish students in the library of the school’s Foundation Building, at E. Seventh Street and Third Avenue. The protesters pounded on the library’s doors, which, according to some news reports, were “barricaded” — though the New York Police Department counters that the doors were merely closed, not locked.
Police were on the scene at the elite East Village school Wednesday but not in uniform. Cooper Union, however, made the decision to have its own security personnel handle the escalating protest — which parents of Jewish students said was unacceptable.
Attorney Gerald Filitti charged that Sparks “failed in her duty,” the New York Post reported.
“All of these schools have a duty to keep students safe — and these students are not safe,” he said. “They do not feel safe coming back to campus. They are not here today. They are afraid to be here today because of what happened yesterday.”
The attorney added the students were trapped in the library for at least 40 minutes despite repeatedly calling 911.
“We don’t want a replay of Columbine,” he said. “We want police officers — in uniform — to help these people.”
Brooklyn Councilmember Inna Vernikov, during her remarks at the press conference, said they would make it “very easy” for Sparks to quit: She brandished a box for Sparks to pack up her stuff, along with a prewritten resignation letter.
Speaking of protests, Vernikov was arrested Oct. 13 after images on social media showed her openly carrying a gun in her waistband at a pro-Palestinian rally at Brooklyn College. Vernikov is licensed to carry a gun, but New York only allows concealed carry.
In a statement, Cooper Union said:
“The devastation and loss of life in Israel and Gaza are a cause of deep pain and anger for people around the world and in our own community. While we support our students’ right to peacefully protest and express themselves, a walkout on Wednesday reached an unacceptable level when protesting students entered a campus building and disrupted the learning environment.
“Cooper is a place of shared learning, and we must uphold our commitment to ensure that all students, faculty and staff feel safe on our campus. While there is room for productive debate and dissent here, there is no place for any discriminatory, hateful or threatening acts of any kind.
“We are reaching out to all of our affected communities to listen to and address their concerns. We are reviewing reports and footage from yesterday’s events and will initiate any necessary actions consistent with our policies. We have already increased our security and are working with NYPD and our external security partner to make sure our students, faculty, and staff feel safe and protected.”
In a statement posted on the school’s Web site, Sparks said, in part, “There is room for productive debate and dissent here, but there is no tolerance for hate or threatening conduct. We condemn discrimination of any kind, including anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. We condemn hateful and threatening acts of any kind — written, spoken, visual, or physical.”
At a press conference with Mayor Adams on Thursday, John Chell, the Police Department’s chief of patrol, gave a report on the prior day’s incident. He said police — despite not having been in uniform — were on top of the situation.
“We were aware of the walkout protest rally at the school yesterday,” he said. “School officials asked us to be there, our police were there from start to finish.
“The school asked us that we will be in plainclothes, and that’s a protocol that we’re going to change and talk to all the schools citywide about that protocol. There was no direct threats, there was no damage and there’s no danger to any students in that school.
“Like I said, our cops there all day from start to finish. They [were] with the 20 protesters that were in the school. They were there at the library. The library doors, they were not…the students were not barricaded. The doors were open but closed. A school administrator thought it was prudent to close the doors and place private security as the protesters were coming down the stairs.
“So, at approximately 1 o’clock, the protests starting in front of Cooper Union as a walkout of students, roughly 70 pro-Palestine and about 20 [pro-]Israeli students…parallel to each other. The Palestinian students were chanting, the Israeli students were silent. This went on for a couple hours, but what happened was people were passing by the school, community people, were getting upset with the protest and were starting to get agitated from that point of view.
“Around 3:30…approximately 20 of the 70 protesters from the Palestinian side went into the school,” the chief continued. “Now, they’re supposed to scan in. They are students, let’s be clear. All the people here were all students, part of this institution. As the 20 kids went into the school, they’re supposed to swipe in, but they kind of just rushed past the swipe-in. Administration error that the school’s going to deal with today from school officials.
“From there, the 20 students wanted to go up to their president’s office, which they did. They got inside the office, the waiting area, if you will, and they were chanting. School officials, at that time, with the police on the scene and private security, felt safe and they wanted to allow the students to keep talking. That happened, was going for about a half hour.
“When the 20 protesters came down the stairs at Cooper Union, another school official heard them coming down, and that person made the decision to, ‘Let’s close the library doors, we’ll put one of our private security and let the protesters pass.’ For about roughly 10 minutes…they were banging on the doors of the library and banging on some transparent windows that you see into the library.
“From that point, the protesters left. School officials thought it was important to ask the Israeli students, ‘Do you need help getting home, any Uber, do you want an Uber ride?’ They said, ‘No, we feel safe, we’re good,’ and they all left. We converged on the school last night. We had this full discussion with school officials last night. We walked through the whole timeline, and we asked them what they need today.
“So, today,” Chell said, “there will be a uniformed presence outside that school because, again, these kids are all students who go to school, and some share the same classes. So, we’ll be there to make sure everything goes peaceful today. And that’s where we stand right now with Cooper Union.”