A Greenpoint native is hoping to raise awareness about bullying in public schools through the online sale of t-shirts designed specifically for Greenpoint residents.
Kerri Cedeno lived in Greenpoint for 30 years before rising rents forced her to leave the neighborhood. She then moved with her young son and mother to the Cairo-Durham area of Greene County in Upstate New York 11 years ago.
Things quickly began to turn ugly for Cedeno, who said she was mocked for her accent.
“They just didn’t like the Brooklyn accent,” she said. “But what I can I do? I have had it my whole life. It made things really hard.”
Worse still, she felt subjected to stares due to her physical appearance. She had recently received a skin graft on her face, as part of her treatment for cancer, which left a permanent mark on her face.
But Cedeno said her son faced a worse kind of subjection. Right from the beginning, Cedeno said he was bullied endlessly, partly because of her own appearance, and partly because the Cairo-Durham Central School District was not equipped to handle the needs of a student who found the traditional form of public school education to be challenging.
For her son, the bullying just wouldn’t stop. Cedeno told the Gazette that beginning in the second grade and continuing to the point where he was expelled from the school in the ninth grade, her son was subjected to taunts about her appearance, beaten with hockey sticks, had his books knocked from his hands, and was punched in the face by a classmate.
Cedeno said school and district officials ignored her pleas for help. In fact, she said, school officials told her that her son suffered from A.D.H.D, and emotional disturbances and recommended he be sent to a specialized school.
Cedeno put her son on medication, which pushed him further into a shell, and according to Cedeno, led to suicidal thoughts.
Distrustful of the school district, Cedeno took matters into her own hands, hiring a lawyer to pursue legal charges against the school district and transferring her son to the Hudson Valley Sudbury School in Woodstock, New York – a private school that espouses independent learning, where students design their own curriculums, and actively participate in the running of the school.
“When students first come in, it takes them some time to build their confidence,” said Jeffery Collins, the founder of Hudson Valley Sudbury School. “It takes a few years sometimes to get away from feeling bad about yourself and to understand that the people do love them and respect them and that happens because this is a place where students are respected and are allowed to pursue their own interests. It allows them to experience the responsibilities of the real world without someone forcing it on them.”
As his behavior and academic performance improved, Cedeno took her son to a neuropsychologist who said he had been misdiagnosed with A.D.H.D, and that placing him on medication could lead to adverse effects.
Cedeno’s lawyer pushed forward with her legal case. The case would determine whether the public school district had failed its responsibility of accommodating Cedeno’s son and whether the state should pay for her son’s schooling at the Sudbury School. While Cedeno initially won her case, it was overturned on appeal.
Sudbury however agreed to allow Cedeno’s son attend at a nominal cost, and her lawyer waived her fees.
“I see these types of cases increasingly today,” said RosaLee Charpentier, Cedeno’s attorney. “The state left her [Cedeno] completely strapped and has done the same to many others. The public school system is just sweeping bullying under the rug, and it’s difficult for parents like Kerri, since private school is usually a privilege reserved for wealthy people.”
Cedeno’s son graduated this year. He is now a pianist and a writer, and his mother is proud to have seen her son blossom into a confident, self-sufficient young adult.
Now, she is determined that no one else goes through the experience her son underwent.
To raise awareness and funds for schools like the one her son attended, Cedeno designed “Greenpoint Native” t-shirts that she is selling through her Facebook page. She has already sold over 170 t-shirts and raised over $1,700. The funds will be divided between her son’s school and the Brooklyn Free School, which espouses values similar to Sudbury. Cedeno has made it her mission to support non-traditional forms of education – where students can thrive at their own comfort level.
“The outpouring of support from Greenpoint has been amazing,” said Cedeno. “It means a lot to get so much love from my neighborhood. I’m proud to be from here because I know this community sticks together.”
Cedeno will continue selling her t-shirts until Friday. She hopes to mount similar campaigns in the future to further propel the issue into mainstream discussion.