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Plagued by the Bell

Post-dismissal behavoir of Hackett Middle School students disrupts nearby business district

by Laurie Lynn Fischer on February 23, 2011

Around 3 PM last Thursday, about 10 kids hung out in front of Dino’s Pizzeria on the corner of Lark and Madison in Albany. Some of them shouted obscenities at each other, others were slapping and punching, still others fashioned dirty ice into snowballs. Inside, one of the group was buying a slice of pizza. A snowball whizzed by another customer. Its target wasn’t the kid, but an employee. Dirty ice exploded in the shop, hitting the cash register, customers and employees and falling over the slices of pizza at the counter. An employee rushed to shoo the kids away. They hurled more ice at him and cursed him. Soon he was on the phone screaming for the police to come—his sweatshirt plastered in dirty snow.

“A lot of places are having issues with the kids,” said a Madison Avenue retailer who has worked down the street from Hackett Middle School for nine years and asked to remain anonymous. “They’re around at dismissal. I think it’s gotten worse over the last three or four years. Even the police officers can’t be in more than one place at one time.”
Vandalizing, shoplifting and cursing, the liberated students harass customers and workers, merchants say, driving away business in stores and restaurants along Lark Street, and Delaware and Madison Avenues. In winter, they throw snowballs at each other and toss them inside stores. When the weather warms up, they brawl. Storekeepers complain that they are loud, obnoxious, disrespectful and violent.
One market manager, who tried to apprehend a shoplifter, said the youth cut him attempting to get out the store door.

“Three times they hit me, and one time the one guy he used something and cut my finger, he said. “Several times, I’ve called 911. It’s still the same problem. Almost every store they go inside. How will we do business?”
Rowdy youths congregate in the parking lot of Dunbrook Mobil on Madison Avenue, said cashier Josh Flye.

“Everyone’s losing patience with these kids,” said Flye. “They’re always fighting and swearing and throwing stuff at cars. Once it starts warming up, there are cops arresting little kids two or three times a week. A lot of times they just break up the fight and the kids run off, but I’ve seen a couple of them handcuffed. They come in and steal stuff once in a while, and I chase them out of the store. They’re pretty slick.”

“They’re terrorizing the neighborhood,” said a Lark Street business owner, who didn’t want to use his name because of possible repercussions.

“I once saw them hitting a pigeon with a stick,” he said. “They think it’s a playground in here. I have to kick them out. They come pulling at the door, and I’ll run out and chase them away. There’s nobody really controlling these kids. Until someone gets hurt or somebody does something that’s really bad, these kids are going to keep doing it.”
Many merchants hide indoors.

The Ben & Jerry’s Scoop ice cream shop on Lark Street gets swamped with requests for free samples each school day.

“All of a sudden 10 or 15 kids are rushing through the door screaming,” said scoop shop co-owner Rich Wilson. “I’ve actually been here when kids come in here to get towels because they’re bleeding because they’ve been in fights.”

Co-owner Mike Sperduto said youngsters have been known to “tag things with spray paint, leave garbage around and snap branches off trees.”

School officials plan to attend a March 7 meeting with members of the Lark Street Business Improvement District “to talk about exactly these issues,” said Albany City Schools spokesman Ron Lesko.

Mary Spinelli, executive director of the Lark Street Business Improvement District, confirmed plans to meet on March 7 with Hackett Middle School Principal Michael Paolino.

“These are the times when it’s critical for everyone to work together—the schools, the business owners, the police department and the families,” Lesko said. “It has to be a community effort.”
At the beginning of the 2009-2010 school year, there was “a lot of disruption in some of those neighborhoods,” Lesko said.

“We worked very closely with police and families, talking about what is and what is not appropriate behavior,” he said. “It certainly is not the majority of students from any school. There are a lot of after-school programs and activities that the kids can choose to get involved in, but not everyone does. There are students who can’t keep themselves out of trouble sometimes, no matter what efforts the community makes to try and keep them on the straight and narrow.”

James Miller, spokesman for the Albany Police, said he was unaware of any recent complaints about “the Hackett kids.” From time to time, there are calls to the school for dismissal problems,” he said. Since September, there have been only a handful of calls in the area for problems with students, he said.

For several years, the Albany Police Department has been working with the school district to keep an eye on what occurs after the middle-school children leave campus, said Miller. The new beat patrol for that neighborhood and other officers monitor the dismissal so there are no fights, rowdy students or other incidents, he said.
And although they are minors, he added, children can be arrested if they commit a criminal act.

“Even if they aren’t involved in a crime but their behavior is very unruly, the officer can take the child to our Children and Family Services Unit and have the parents/guardian come to pick their child up,” he said.