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Outraged parents sound off on school officials

February 17, 2012 2:48:04 PM PST
A computer teacher in Queens charged with fondling two young students was disciplined because of similar accusations years ago, but was allowed to stay in the classroom.

On Friday morning, more than 100 parents attended an emergency meeting at PS 174 in Rego Park and gave an earful to school officials who they say inappropriately handled a situation they knew to be dangerous for children.

"How can they let that happen?" parent Andy Mei said. "How can they let vulnerable kids work with people with such spotty track records?"

The previous allegations against 49-year-old Wilbert Cortez were made back in 2000 at PS 184 in Brooklyn. At that time, a disciplinary letter was placed in his file and he was transferred to PS 174, where the principal was unaware of his past.

Cortez was arraigned Thursday on charges of second-degree sexual conduct against a child and endangering the welfare of a child. The incidents allegedly involved two boys, ages 8 and 9. Cortez is now free on $50,000 bail.

The father of one of the victims spoke out at the meeting.

"He didn't like the fact that his child was in a classroom that was considered a basement, where he was unsupervised," parent Denis Bissell said, of the father's comments. "And of course, he's upset that his child was somehow abused."

On Friday, every New York City school student will be bringing home a letter from Chancellor Dennis Walcott, explaining how seriously he takes the allegations of child abuse and to announce major policy changes.

Walcott says there will be changes in hiring to ensure full teacher records are available.

"We're taking a look back to 2000 to see if there are any gaps in the system that have occurred like this particular case where this principal did not know this particular case existed as a substantiated case and making sure we follow up on that as well," he said.

Walcott said if they do find any substantiated incidents of touching of students, those teachers or other type of school personnel will be found, in whatever school they are in, and fired.

Meanwhile, Cortez' attorney says his client plans to fight the charges.

"He entered a plea of not guilty, and he intends to fight the charges," defense attorney Donald Vogelman said. "He's never been arrested before. He will come back to court and we will fight the charges."

The allegations were brought to light in October, and Cortez was immediately removed from the classroom while the investigation was conducted. Police say seven other children have since come forward.

This incident is the third time this month a public school employee has been accused of abusing children.

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