The battle of Williamsburg

Latinos win fight against segregation

When the city’s Board of Education made a move to close off a wing of P.S. 16 in Brooklyn, it set off an uproar. In the fall of that year —1986— hundreds of parents kept their children home and boycotted the school in a massive act of protest.

Under the plan, a section of the Williamsburg school would be walled and locked off to provide remedial education to Hasidic girls from a nearby Yeshiva. The Board of Ed said it had to comply with federal mandates to provide remedial support to students but not in parochial settings.

A legal battle ensued with longtime activist Martin S. Needelman representing affected of P.S. 16.

“That third [of the building] was being used for special education services,” he explained. Instead, the Board of Ed led parents of disabled children to believe that they would be redistributed to other schools because it was a better option—not because of the plan to divide P.S. 16, Needleman said.

The parents’ suit to block the plan was successful on appeal. In its decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals wrote:

Each day, the public school students would observe some 390 Beth Rachel students arrive at P.S. 16. The Beth Rachel students would be taught in classrooms only they may use; no public school students would be taught either in those classes or in those rooms. Yiddish would be spoken in the Beth Rachel classes. Only Hasidic girls would be taught; those girls would be allowed no contact with boys. Only female teachers would teach the Hasidic girls. And where once there was an open corridor allowing freedom to traverse the entire hall, there are now a wall and doors partitioning the Beth Rachel girls from the public school students….

The lengths to which the City has gone to cater to these religious views, which are inherently divisive, are plainly likely to be perceived, by the Hasidim and others, as governmental support for the separatist tenets of the Hasidic faith. Worse still, to impressionable young minds, the City’s Plan may appear to endorse not only separatism, but the derogatory rationale for separatism expressed by some of the Hasidim

Needelman said that racial discrimination and political decisions still adversely affected Latinos in Williamsburg and criticized how these issues are simplified as ethnic fighting. With P.S. 16, it was a matter of “segregation based on race, religion and gender,” he said.

He also pointed out that these school co-location battles remain today.

“The lesson is that if you fight, you win,” said Needelman. “If not, bad things happen.”