It’s been more than two weeks since Romy Vilsaint, a fifth-grader at PS 361 in East Flatbush, died after complaining of head injuries sustained from bullying. But since his May 7 death, Vilsaint’s family and other parents say, the school’s silence is an attempt to erase the tragedy.
“The way that they want to put it, it’s like the child was so worthless, and nobody wants to even address the cause of his death,” said Jeanne Vilsaint, the godmother of Romy, 12. “They want to just erase everything like nothing ever happened? He was a person.”
In the days since Romy’s death, school parents and community members have voiced dissatisfaction, not only that the incident happened in the first place, but also the lack of communication from the school. They have also demanded resources like grief counseling to help children deal with losing a classmate. The New York City Department of Education (DOE) has referred the incident to an independent body for investigation.
Romy was reportedly jumped and beaten up after school on May 5. The following day while in school, he was punched in the head by another student, who was apparently paid $1 on a dare. Romy complained of severe headaches and vomiting to the school nurse, who sent him home. He passed away the afternoon of May 7, at Kings County Hospital, per media reports.
The most recent available data from the DOE showed that as of the 2019-20 school year, 23% of the 557 students, in pre-kindergarten through fifth grade, at PS 361 were English language learners. While ethnicity data was not available, 73.4% were Black, 15.6% were Hispanic, 5.7% were Asian and 4.5% identified as white. Per the DOE, 86% of the student population lived in poverty, compared with 72.6% of public school students citywide.
In criticizing the school’s handling of the incident, Vilsaint said she believes the incident would have been handled differently in a wealthier neighborhood.
“It would have been different if it would have happened to another race,” Vilsaint also said. “They just assume that ‘he’s Haitian, poor little Haitian, maybe we can do this, that and the other and it’s going to go away.’”
The Haitian Times attempted to reach PS 361 Principal Tiffany Frazier at the school. A school security guard who spoke with Frazier in her office said the principal had no comment.
The DOE communications office did not respond to a phone message seeking comment on May 25. The exact cause of Romy’s death has not been reported, which DOE spokesperson Nathaniel Styer noted in a statement on May 14. Romy was “a beloved member of the PS 361 community, and this is an awful, heart-wrenching tragedy,” Styer said.
Media have also reported this month that the police have opened up an investigation into the cause of Romy’s death.
Parents speak out
As she waited in Nostrand Playground to pick up her daughter from school on May 24, Cynthia Innocent said she has heard one too many reports of bullying at PS 361.
“I had two kids before, I took them out, now this is the last one,” Innocent said, gesturing toward her daughter, who had just come out of school.
“There’s so many things happening, I don’t want to be part of that school,” said Innocent, of East Flatbush. “It looks like a jungle to me.”
Echoing the concerns of other parents and community members, Innocent said she learned details about Romy’s death from other parents and the media. The school, Innocent said, should be taking more responsibility for what happened.
Another parent waiting in the playground, who identified herself as Candace and declined to provide her full name, also said she learned about Romy’s death in the media. The school, she said, sent a message on ClassDojo, a digital communication app, that did not mention Romy by name, nor make note of any specific bullying events at the school.
“That hurts, because it could have been any one of our kids,” said Candace, of East Flatbush, who has a first-grade son at PS 361. “They could have at least acknowledged the child, I don’t know if it’s because of the [DOE] investigation.”
The ClassDojo message was a non-specific guide to helping parents guide children through understanding a traumatic event. The written communication asked parents to encourage their children to express their feelings and to give direct, honest information.
That piece of advice is something the school leadership has not exactly lived up to, according to parents.
Without specific details, parents cannot make an informed decision on whether or not to keep their children in school, said Candace. Some parents might know nothing at all about the incident, if they work and do not pick their child up from school everyday, she said.
“What about the parents who don’t know nothing at all, that didn’t watch the news?” Candace asked, rhetorically. “They’re not knowing what’s going on.”
Rallying for justice, demanding transparency
In the wake of Romy’s death, elected officials held a press conference in Nostrand Playground on May 14. Multiple officials, including District 42 Assembly Member Rodneyse Bichotte-Hermelyn and District 45 city Council Member Farah Louis demanded an independent investigation into Romy’s death.
Protests outside the school have often involved one activist, who identified herself as Onelie’true and a nickname, “Ayiti.” She was joined by two other East Flatbush community members on May 18. But Onelie’true said she frequently has come alone, to draw attention to what happened with Romy.
She bore a Haitian flag on the afternoon of May 24, as she waited with parents outside the school during dismissal time.
“The parents tell me there’s been no bereavement services, no grief counselors,” said Onelie’true, 23, a former student at the school who resides in Bedford-Stuyvesant. “They need to inform the parents, who still to this day have not received a letter or anything informing [them] of what transpired ‒ the murder, bullying and brutalization of a child.”
Vilsaint, Romy’s godmother, said she blames Principal Frazier for the school’s lack of transparency after her nephew’s death.
“Her behavior is telling me that she really doesn’t care about what happened,” Vilsaint said. “Just apologize that it happened to [a] child and show us that you’re taking the necessary measures to prevent that from happening to another kid.”