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Mount Pleasant Residents Demand Action After Cottage School Incidents

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Ronald Richter, CEO and executive director of the JCCA, which operates the Pleasantville Cottage School, speaks at a forum last Wednesday to address concerns stemming from disturbing incidents caused by some of the facility’s residents.

Mount Pleasant residents living near the Pleasantville Cottage School called on the town and representatives of the school’s operating agency to better protect the community after a recent escalation of incidents involving its residents.

Last Wednesday, members of the Coalition for a Safe Mount Pleasant organized a meeting at Town Hall attended by officials from the town and the Jewish Child Care Association (JCCA) that runs the Cottage School in hopes getting a handle on the number of problems that have spilled over into the community. The Cottage School serves a population of children from seven to 16 years old who have educational, behavioral and emotional needs.

“There are very good kids, but the ones that aren’t good, it’s becoming a problem, and my biggest fear is that one day one of these kids is going to walk into the residential community and do something, and a resident is going to react and it’s going to become a news story and we’re all going to look like the bad guys,” said Gary Rushneck, a Coalition for a Safe Mount Pleasant member. “We’re trying to prevent that from happening.”

As of Nov. 30, Mount Pleasant police have responded to 682 calls related to the Cottage School, according to the department. Of those calls, 580 have been for on-campus incidents while 102 were in the community at large, including criminal offenses.

Police Chief Paul Oliva said while the number of calls is not out of line compared to recent years, the severity of some of the recent incidents are. That’s especially true during the past month, which has seen an uptick in criminal behavior perpetrated by Cottage School residents, including four burglaries of a convenience store that was targeted by the same group of kids.

Oliva also detailed another incident where a male resident was seen in the community with a rake or shovel and told a nearby resident that he was looking to hurt people. Police were called and he was brough back to campus, but the service that the Cottage School uses for mental health observations, Westchester County’s Behavioral Health Center on the Westchester Medical Center campus, deemed the resident not to be suffering from mental health issues but behavioral problems.

“The next day the same young man entered someone’s yard and went into a chicken coop and killed a chicken, bit its head off and was walking down the street with it when police were there,” Oliva said. “It frightened the neighbors; it frightened me. Staff, obviously, wasn’t happy about it.”

Ronald Richter, CEO and executive director of the JCCA, said several factors have contributed to the surge in incidents. He said the Behavioral Health Center has been turning away children from treatment who are clearly in need of help, including one resident early last week who displayed suicidal tendencies. The next day, Cottage School staff prevented the youngster from hurting themselves.

A complaint has been lodged with the state Department of Health, which oversees the Behavioral Health Center, Richter said. Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, who will represent Mount Pleasant starting next month, has also brought the concerns to the attention of the health department, he said.

Passage of the federal Families First Prevention Services Act in 2018 has also had a negative impact, according to Richter. Enacted to encourage keeping children with their families instead of out-of-home care, children at facilities such as the Cottage School are arriving and leaving at a faster rate, he said.

Because of the legislation, the number of beds statewide in residential facilities for youths has plummeted from more than 1,000 to about 450.

Similar to the general population, many of the Cottage School’s roughly 200 children on campus have also been negatively affected by the pandemic, Richter mentioned.

“Ninety-five percent of the kids are pretty amazing given the circumstances that they were presented with,” Richter said. “Forty to 50 of them work in this community, have jobs and are pretty responsible given the circumstance they were dealt.”

Regardless, some residents want the Cottage School and state and local officials to do more. Hawthorne resident Marie Wayne said she and many of her neighbors had to deal with problems for decades stemming from Cedar Knolls, which closed a few years ago. Now the same is true for the Cottage School.

She said the town and its taxpayers should not have to see Mount Pleasant’s police officers respond to hundreds of calls at the school every year.

“It should be their responsibility to pay for the police and not our police,” Wayne said. “They don’t deserve to be there.”

Richter said one short-term measure the JCCA will pursue is an eight-foot fence around the perimeter of the campus, pending town approval. That will not only make it more difficult for residents to leave but will prevent unauthorized people from entering the grounds.

The organization is also going to reach out to Rockland Children’s Psychiatric Center in hopes of having mental health evaluations done there, he said.

Richter said the JCCA shares the town’s concerns.

“Our goal is not to be a nuisance to your community,” Richter said. “Our goal is to do our important work in harmony with the community and with the knowledge that we are not always, we are not always in control of every action of every child.”

Supervisor Carl Fulgenzi said the town understands the challenges facing the Cottage School, but it’s critical that improvements are made.

“I will be a pain in the neck, me and the chief,” Fulgenzi said. “We will not let this go and whatever we have to do to work with you to make improvements we will do that. But we do want to see some changes. Without these changes we’re not going to move forward.”


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