A real-life lesson in McCarthyism

John Yanno reports on the case of Jill Bloomberg, a Brooklyn principal who has fought against school segregation--and now faces a 1950s-style witch-hunt.

Park Slope Collegiate Principal Jill Bloomberg greets supporters during an investigation into her political viewsPark Slope Collegiate Principal Jill Bloomberg greets supporters during an investigation into her political views

A POPULAR and outspoken Brooklyn principal is being investigated by the New York City Department of Education (DOE) for "communist activities"--in response to her anti-racist activism on behalf of her students.

Principal Jill Bloomberg of Park Slope Collegiate, a grade 6-12 school and one of five small schools housed in the John Jay High School Campus, learned of the McCarthyist charges in March when investigators from the Office of Special Investigations (OSI) notified her she was under investigation, but didn't specify the charge.

Bloomberg learned from a staff member interviewed by the OSI that the investigation was about alleged "communist activities taking place at the school." According to the DOE, Bloomberg's is accused of being a member of a communist organization and recruiting students for that organization's political activities.

Bloomberg believes the investigation is retaliation for years of anti-racist activism on behalf of her students.

Bloomberg's campus activism began in 2010 when the DOE announced plans to co-locate a "selective" high school in the John Jay campus. The school, Millennium Brooklyn, was a "sister school" to Millennium High School in Manhattan, a school with a predominately white and Asian student population.

What you can do

Sign the petition that supporters of Principal Jill Bloomberg have created in her defense.

Bloomberg and others at the John Jay campus believed the DOE was creating the new school to serve the predominately white middle class population of John Jay's Park Slope neighborhood.

The student populations of the three schools housed in the John Jay campus at the time were, and remain, predominantly Black and Latino. Bloomberg and other staff members wondered why the DOE wasn't making an effort to integrate the existing schools.

As SocialistWorker.org reported at the time, members of the School Leadership Team at Park Slope Collegiate (then known as the Secondary School for Research) criticized the co-location proposal at a public hearing, saying:

More than 60 years after the U.S. Supreme Court declared that separate was inherently unequal, and after hundreds of thousands fought against racism and for the integration of public schools, this country's public school system remains blatantly segregated--and is growing more so by the day.

The Department of Education's proposal to place the new Millennium Brooklyn in the John Jay campus reveals the racism and inequity in the New York City public schools. It also demands that we revive the inspiring struggles of past civil rights movements and take a stand against racism.

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THE DOE tried to entice the existing schools at John Jay to accept Millennium Brooklyn by offering to give them money that they had actually been owed for almost a decade. When John Jay High School, the school the campus is named after, was phased out starting in 2001 and replaced with the three small schools, the new schools never received start-up funds typically given to new schools.

Ten years later, the DOE finally admitted it had shortchanged the campus hundreds of thousands of dollars, and promised that if the co-location were approved, the city would release those funds that were desperately needed to repair the schools' crumbling building.

At the public hearing, Bloomberg talked about the horrific conditions that students and staff on the John Jay campus had to endure:

Water damage from a chronically leaky roof was so bad that some classroom walls crumbled. Door frames separated from the walls. In 2005-2006, when the roof of the building was belatedly replaced, nearly every classroom on the fourth floor was flooded. The science lab was so badly damaged that tiles floated in the water. To this day, the lab floor remains a patchwork of different-colored tiles.

Though the building received funds for wireless access throughout, most of our students' classrooms have only one electrical outlet, severely limiting the use of interactive whiteboards, LCD projectors and document readers. In our dingy student and faculty bathrooms, the plumbing is so old that the toilets fail with regularity.

Our drinking fountains function sporadically; what water we get is always lukewarm. Ancient radiators either heat rooms like blast furnaces or don't work at all. Whatever funding ever existed for classroom air conditioners never made it to our fourth floor. Of course, there's no place to plug them in if they ever do.

In spite of impressive organizing and protest by staff and students of the other three schools and organizations like the Grassroots Education Movement, then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg's Panel for Educational Policy--infamous among education advocates as a rubber stamp for mayoral decisions--approved the co-location, and the Millennium Brooklyn opened in 2011.

Although they lost the battle, the fight energized Bloomberg and the staff, students and parents at her school. Determined to reject Jim Crow education, Bloomberg reached out to local elementary schools to promote Park Slope Collegiate.

These efforts have paid off. Park Slope Collegiate is still a predominantly Black and Latino school in a predominantly white neighborhood, but it has a more integrated student body than the other two original schools on campus.

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NOW, IN a headline ripped straight from the 1950s, this fighter for racial integration in public education is being accused of "communism activities."

Bloomberg denied the charges and thinks that they are retaliation for years of being an outspoken critic of the DOE and calling out city policies that perpetuate a separate and unequal education system.

In addition to the fight around the Millennium co-location, Bloomberg and her school have taken stands against police brutality and the metal detectors that students at John Jay campus are forced to file through at the start of each day. Shortly before being investigated by the OSI, Bloomberg accused the DOE of discriminating against the building's Black and Latino students by providing more resources to Millennium's sports teams than to those of the other schools in the building.

Bloomberg has now filed a lawsuit in response to the OSI investigation. She is accusing the DOE of violating her rights under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which protects an individual's right to free speech under the First Amendment, and is arguing that that the investigation can cause a "chilling effect" at the school on free speech, especially as it pertains to anti-racism and social justice activism.

Bloomberg asked the court for an injunction to stop the investigation until her lawsuit is resolved, but her request was denied.

New York City has one of the most segregated public school systems in the United States. Many of its schools are in disrepair. Some 100,000 city students, disproportionately Black and Latino, are forced to pass through airport-like security each morning.

Students, teachers and parents need activists like Principal Jill Bloomberg to stand against the violations of their rights and dignity. A guilty charge by the OSI would put a dampening effect on organizing and activism across New York City's more than 1,800 schools.