Bronx school administrators were silent on illegal weapon placed in student backpack

(The Center Square) – A former after-school program employee brought metal knuckles to a New York City public school and placed them in a student backpack.

He later retrieved the illegal…

(The Center Square) – A former after-school program employee brought metal knuckles to a New York City public school and placed them in a student backpack.

He later retrieved the illegal weapon by identifying the student using surveillance footage, calling the student’s mother and personally retrieving the knuckles from the student’s home.

Administrators at Astor Collegiate Academy in the Bronx were recommended for discipline by the Special Commissioner of Investigation for the New York City School District, but continue to be employed by the school. It’s unclear what disciplinary action they received for failing to report the incident for roughly two weeks.

Jonathan Berenguer was employed by the New York City Department of Youth & Community Development Afterschool Program at Astor when he brought metal knuckles to the school on Oct. 27, 2022, according to a report from the New York City Department of Education’s watchdog agency obtained by Chalkboard News through a public records request. (Chalkboard News is published by Franklin News Foundation, which also publishes The Center Square.)

Initially, Berenguer told administrators at the school that the knuckles had fallen into a student’s backpack. He later told investigators that he had intentionally placed them into a nearby backpack. It is a class A misdemeanor in New York State to carry metal knuckles, something Berenguer told investigators he was aware of before he brought them to the school. 

Berenguer said he was experiencing threats on his life and that his car had been stolen, which is why he had the weapon on his person, according to the SCI report. On a day that he wore a suit to school, Berenguer told investigators that the knuckles were causing him discomfort so he took them out of his pocket. 

“Berenguer stated that he did not want the weapon exposed, so he placed the weapon inside of the open side pocket of a nearby backpack,” the report reads. “Berenguer confirmed he did not know to whom the backpack belonged before he put the knuckles in the side pocket. Berenguer explained that he was called away and only later remembered his knuckles were still in the backpack.” 

Berenguer told investigators that he viewed surveillance tapes to find the student who owned the backpack in which he had placed the weapon and called the student’s mother, the report says. 

The mother told investigators that “Berenguer asked her to check [the student’s] backpack but did not say what he was looking for” and that after doing so, “she observed a set of metal knuckles,” according to the report. The mother told investigators Berenguer explained why he was carrying the weapon and apologized but did not say how they ended up in the student’s backpack, the report says. 

Astor Principal Sandra Burgos told investigators that “Berenguer indicated that he had brought the weapon to Astor for ‘protection,’ but sometime during the day, the metal knuckles fell into the backpack of [the student.] Principal Burgos told investigators that Berenguer stated that he had retrieved the knuckles from [the student] but did not explain how he recovered them.”

Burgos and assistant principal Vincent Agostinelli were aware of the incident in October of that year, but both “failed to report the incident involving Berenguer within a timely manner,” the report reads. 

Administrators should have taken the initiative in flagging the incident, the SCI’s report found. 

“Both Principal Burgos and AP Agostinelli admitted that they did not report the incident until November 10, 2022, and both acknowledged that no follow-up was made until it was reported approximately two weeks after the incident,” the report reads. “As both Principal Burgos and AP Agostinelli are mandated reporters and, as such, are required to report complaints in a timely manner, which neither did, it is the recommendation of this office that DOE take appropriate disciplinary action regarding Principal Burgos and AP Agostinelli.”

According to Astor’s staff directory, both Burgos and Agostinelli are still listed as principal and assistant principal, respectively. When asked what disciplinary action was taken against Burgos and Agostenelli, Jenna Lyle, a spokesperson for NYC Department of Education, was not specific.

“The safety and wellbeing of our students is our top priority,” Lyle said in an emailed statement. “These findings have been reviewed and responded to by the Superintendent.” 

Berenguer declined to comment but said he no longer does business with the NYC DOE. The New York Daily News profiled Berenguer in 2019 after he was nominated for the publication’s “Hometown Hero” award. 

The piece highlighted the challenges Berenguer had overcome, including the death of his parents at a young age, and his willingness to serve students from the Bronx. 

Astor Collegiate Academy did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication.