2009-04-17 / Top Stories

PS 256 Parents, Staff Hit City With 500M Lawsuit

By Howard Schwach

PA President Albert Hiller, seated in his motorized wheelchair in front of the school in September, is one of the plaintiffs in a $500 million lawsuit against the city charging dangerous conditions at his son's school. Photo by Howard Schwach. PA President Albert Hiller, seated in his motorized wheelchair in front of the school in September, is one of the plaintiffs in a $500 million lawsuit against the city charging dangerous conditions at his son's school. Photo by Howard Schwach. Public School 256, a District 75 special education school located at 445 Beach 135 Street, opened its doors on September 2, 2008 along with all of the other city schools despite the fact that parents and staff said that the deteriorating building was packed with asbestos, mold and peeling leadbased paint.

At the time, however, Department of Education officials said that the building was not dangerous and could open on time while work went on to remediate all of the problems.

"We have developed a work plan as part of an agreement with the United Federation of Teachers," said Margie Feinberg, a Department of Education spokesperson. "We have thoroughly tested the building and we would not open a building that is not safe."

Now, however, students and staff at that special needs school are suing the city for $500 million for taking more than ten years to clean the building, leaving it unsafe to be utilized as a school.

The building, which was opened in 1950 as a community center for Temple Beth-El, was purchased earlier this year by the city as part of the DOE's plan to increase the number of seats available for students, to ease overcrowding.

For an undisclosed sum of money, the city got a 58-year-old building in need of great repair, local parents say.

The building had been rented to the city for the past decade and has, during that time, been used by special education students.

"The city Educational Department received endless complaints against Public School 256's annex in Belle Harbor, where rooms were rife with lead paint, asbestos and mold," the lawsuit argues.

James Hiller, 7, is autistic and has been attending classes in the building for more than two years.

Albert Hiller, James' father, is the president of the school's Parents Association. He is angry at the city for putting his son and the other 100 students who attend the school in jeopardy.

"They're always taking a back door approach when it comes to [special education]," Hiller told The Wave in front of the building just before it opened in September. "It's horrible, especially when you're dealing with kids with disabilities."

The school is designated, the DOE says, for kids with autism or severe emotional problems from kindergarten to grade five.

Hiller questions why the city bought the dilapidated, deteriorating building in the first place.

"There is no elevator and the place is literally falling apart," he said. "I like the care and concern that my son gets from the staff, but I worry about him in that building."

"The DOE had to know what was going on before they bought it," he added. "It is not a good place for kids, especially kids with problems."

"They don't seem to care at all about our kids being in a dangerous

building," he said.

Teachers at the Belle Harbor school have long complained about conditions in the building. They speak of falling ceiling tiles and the lack of heat in the winter.

"We knew that the building was very uncomfortable, but we didn't know that it was dangerous," Hans Marryshow, a veteran teacher, told Daily News reporter Meredith Kolodner.

As for Hiller, who has a bone disease that keeps him in a motorized wheelchair, he wants the DOE to open all the walls to "find out what the real deal is with the building."

"They have to fix the problems," he said. "They have to come up with one safe building for all of our kids. They have to answer the basic question, is this building safe for our challenged kids. These kids don't need anything else to hold them back, because they already have enough problems."

The building was closed for two weeks last summer, just prior to the September opening, so crews could fix some of the more dangerous problems, a staffer, who asked not to be identified, told The Wave this week.

And, while some of the more obvious problems were covered over, the staffer said, the deeper problems remain.

"The city promised us that this would be taken care of," the staffer said. "They have done little to keep that promise, and the school becomes more dangerous each day."

The 51 people named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit, however, believe that it may be too late for any meaningful repairs to be made.

"The damage is done," Hiller, who is part of the lawsuit, told Daily News reporter Nicole Bode this week. "There's no way to change that. All we can do is sit back and wait. I'd rather fight for our next generation of kids so that it will never happen again."

A spokesperson for the Department of Education declined to comment on an issue involving ongoing litigation.

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