Around half a dozen people gathered outside the Jewish Primary Day School of the Nation’s Capital Monday morning to protest the impact of noise made by students in the playground attached to the school. Some waved signs with images of guns to symbolize how the noise is injuring in particular the school’s next door neighbor, Dr. Frances Cress Welsing, who has filed suit against the school, claiming it is in breach of an agreement to build a noise buffer between the playground and her property.
“We were surprised to see them,” said Naomi Reem, the head of school at JPDS-NC, “and that they involved the children in this. It’s wrong to use pictures of semiautomatics in front of children.”
The school quickly called the police who kept an eye on the protesters and convinced them to leave less than two hours after they arrived. A representative for Welsing told the school the protesters would not return, but the school informed parents in an email that police would be on hand for arrival and dismissal at the school for some days ahead just in case.
Andrew Apostolou, whose step-daughter is in fifth grade at JPDS-NC, was concerned when he received the school’s email about the protesters and planned to go see it for himself before finding out they had already left.
“Demonstrating against children is an absurd tactic,” he said. “I’ve participated in many a protest but never with children as the audience.”
Apostolou said he had been aware of the dispute but had never given much thought to it until now.
“The school’s been very transparent about everything,” he said.
The school invited parents to a meeting to discuss the matter Tuesday night with legal counsel attending as well to answer questions. The students were apparently mostly unfazed by the experience, which Reem chalks up to the resilience of youth.
“The children handled it better than we could expect,” she said. “It was a teachable moment.”
The protest represents an escalation of a long-standing dispute between Welsing, a psychiatrist, author and former faculty member of Howard University Hospital and Medical School, and JPDS-NC, which dates back to before the playground even opened in 2010.
“We’ve been trying for years to come to an agreement,” Reem said.
When reached, Welsing said she could not comment without first consulting with her attorney and did not call back before press time. However, public records and previous statements made to the press show her view that the school has not followed through on agreements to find a way to limit how much noise she faces from the playground.
Welsing’s claims have garnered her some support in the larger community. A group called She Shall Not Be Moved formed specifically to advocate for her cause. According to their website, the group is “a group of local and national individuals who are committed to using love, logic, creativity and communication to ensure that a sound barrier is put up at the home of Dr. Welsing.”
The group created an online petition on Change.org which has collected 1,572 signatures as of this writing. Though organizers did not respond for an interview request, comments from signatories reflect strong emotions and while many shared passionate but coherent comments such as the one from “Keith Young” who wrote: “For me this is an issue of common courtesy and the respect that neighbors should have for one another. A little consideration in this matter would be much appreciated,” others accuse the school of racism and conspiracy such as one “james brown” who wrote: “I see this as another form of slavery, just take our property.”
“Some think they [the children] are making noise to make her move, but it’s just not the case,” Reem said.
When the playground was first proposed, there was a line of mature trees along the property border that Welsing said she and the school had agreed would remain standing.
“When I woke up one morning and heard bulldozers and I went to the window and saw that these big huge trees were being bulldozed, I immediately called the school and was told that wasn’t supposed to happen, but they were gone,” Welsing said, according to a transcript of a Board of Zoning Adjustment (BZA) meeting last September.
According to Reem, however, once the playground area had been surveyed it was found that the trees would not survive and so their removal had been arranged and Welsing had been informed.
“They were not mistakenly taken down,” she said.
That was just the start of the acrimony between the school and Welsing, who has lived in her current home for four decades and is now in her late 70s. Since the playground’s construction, she has cited it as a hindrance to her work and the cause of worrisome medical difficulties.
“I have been caused to have increased heart rate, high blood pressure, headaches every single day. I even have to rush away from my house to get away from the noise and go to my office, and I can’t describe how horrible it is to have noise every day,” Welsing said at the meeting.
At the September meeting, the BZA requested that the the school create a plan to limit the impact of noise from the playground and the school created a proposal for a 10-foot wooden wall along the property border which the board approved. However, according to the public record the school did not hear back from Welsing after sending her their fence permit approval twice in November. The final report ordered that a fence application be signed by both the school and Welsing as part of the zoning requirements for the playground but added that that condition for the school would expire if Welsing did not sign the application by mid-June. Welsing then filed a motion for reconsideration of the board’s approval of the school’s expansion plans, which stopped the countdown to that expiration, but after her motion was denied last week the timer began again.
Reem said that the school met with Welsing and her representation two weeks ago, and is waiting on a proposal from her or for her signature on their own proposal in order to move forward. That’s part of why she was surprised about the protest, since it had seemed like everything was under control.
There’s never been any other complaints from other neighbors, Reem said, explaining that the school tries hard to be a good neighbor, participating in cleanup activities and other improvement projects, and that JPDS-NC will continue to work toward coming to a mutually agreeable conclusion with Welsing, whatever that may ultimately involve.
“We want to do the right thing,” Reem said.