Volume 23, Number 5 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | June 11 - 17, 2010
Seward Park Library incident sparks outrage
BY Aline Reynolds
At around 5:30 pm on May 6, a nine-year-old girl was in Chinatown’s Seward Park Library with her mother. As she was leaving the bathroom alone on the second floor, she was accosted by a stranger, who touched her inappropriately.
“She didn’t say anything right away, so the guy was able to get out of there,” said Angela Montefinise, public relations manager at the New York Public Library “Everyone’s keeping their eyes open and being a little more vigilant now.”
The incident has sparked public outrage and community action in Chinatown, long considered one of the safest areas in New York City.
“To rob the innocence of a child is such a despicable act,” said Congresswoman Velazquez of New York’s 12th Congressional District. Velazquez referred to libraries and schools as “sacred” places where parents should not have to be concerned about their child’s safety.
She and other Lower Manhattan officials convened last Sunday with representatives from city organizations and concerned community members at a safety forum on sexual assault held at the Educational Alliance’s Mazer Theater at 197 E. Broadway.
The officials at the forum stressed that fighting crime and sexual assault is a team effort. “We have to supplement the police’s work, we have to energize the community, we’ve got to get everyone involved,” Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer said. Recent state and city budget cuts, he added, have put stress on the police force, heightening the need for alertness among residents, schools and community groups.
In his call for a collective effort against sexual violence, Stringer said, “We always have to worry that this could be a trend when we let our guard down.”
State Senator Daniel Squadron echoed his sentiment.
“We have to work together as a community to prevent this kind of incident from ever happening again,” said Squadron.
The officials reiterated the famous MTA motto, “If you see something, say something.” “People need to speak up if they see something that’s not right,” said Council Member Margaret Chin, referencing Asian seniors in Queens who recently relocated after reporting an assault at a housing center.
“Maybe the entire school system has to revisit safety and security,” Congresswoman Velazquez added. She has asked City Council Speaker Christine Quinn to arrange a meeting with New York City Public School Chancellor Joel Klein about raising safety awareness among principals, teachers and supervisors in the New York City Public School system.
Increasing government funding for library security and conducting self-defense classes for children in the community are additional ways to prevent future assault incidents from occurring, said Wei-Li Tjong, a director at the Seward Park Cooperative.
“We need to galvanize our community through education and awareness,” he added.
Sources say the forum is the first step toward deterring sexual predators. “Silence perpetuates sexual assault,” said Deborah Gibbard, a member of Project Envision, an initiative sponsored by New York City Alliance Against Sexual Assault.
“It’s an issue that really needs more public discussion, because it’s kept so underground,” said Gibbard.
“A lot of times people think of it as incidents that individuals face,” said Jessica LaHood, a community organizer for Project Envision. “We really need to start addressing it as a community issue in order to successfully prevent it from happening again. And the Sunday forum was a really good start to that process.”
The Safety Forum was organized by the Seward Park Cooperative, the 7th Precinct Community Council, The Lo-Down NY, a community news website and Kaimen Company, a public relations firm.
The Seward Park Library is surrounded by SPC apartment buildings, a 1,728-unit complex that houses 4,000 Lower East Side residents. “In the last 15 years, there has been an explosion of families with children that have moved to Seward Park,” Tjong said, making the need for heightened security all the more crucial. He hopes to solicit volunteers among SPC residents to patrol the library and pledge financial support.
Business is carrying on as usual at the Seward Park Library, with its 60 children’s education programs. But some area parents are tightening the reins on their children since the incident. “There is no way I’m going to let my daughter back in there knowing that we have halfway houses with sex offenders [nearby],” said Susan Avery, a third-generation Lower East Sider and editor of a parenting website. Avery’s daughter volunteered at the library prior to the incident.
“I specifically want to know what the library is going to do to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” Avery said.
The Seward Park branch will use NYPL capital funds to purchase security cameras, which will be installed around the facility by the fall. Flyers with a police sketch of the assailant have been posted in the library’s staff area. Staff members are instructed to notify the chief librarian or call the police if they see any suspicious behavior, but they received no additional safety training following the May 6 assault, said Montefinise.
The perpetrator of the May 6 incident at the Seward Park Library has not yet been found by the NYPD. He is described as a white male in his mid-40s, approximately 5’9’’ in height and short salt-and-pepper hair. Anyone with information about the incident is asked to call Crime Stoppers at 1-800-577-TIPS (8477). You can also submit a tip anonymously by logging onto the Crime Stoppers website (http://www.c-s-i.org/) or by texting their tips to “CRIMES” (274637) and then entering TIP577.