Popular Canarsie high-school teacher removed and interrogated over social-media post

Reassigned: Nick Russo was removed from his classroom for a video he posted on Instagram. He said that he had a disagreement with the school’s new principal beforehand and that she misinterpreted the post to be a threat towards her.
Nick Russo

They really threw the book at this teacher.

A popular Canarsie high-school teacher says he was removed from his classroom by a squad of police and thrown into a padded cell in a psych ward, and then reassigned out of the classroom awaiting disciplinary procedures, all because of a video he posted on social media.

Nick Russo is a teacher and sports coach at the Urban Action Academy, which is part of the Canarsie Educational Campus, a school that has been plagued by scandals and abysmal graduation rates.

When he arrived for school on Sept. 24 at around 6 am, ahead of the start of classes, Russo said he was confronted by more than a dozen uniformed cops and detectives.

He was then questioned for two hours about a video he posted online, in which he was playing a character wearing a Guy Fawkes mask and wielding a machete, talking about a “queen” — which Russo believes the school’s new principal, Fareeda Garcia, mistakenly took to be a threat against her.

“She thought that I was threatening her in the video, which is a blatant lie,” Russo said. “If you took a look at any videos on my pages it’s very clear that this is all performance.”

Russo said that the character is one he uses in his morality tale videos to represent the dark impulses of humanity, and he even breaks character to make periodic disclaimers to avoid anyone getting the wrong idea.

Garcia and the Urban Action Academy declined to comment.

The teacher said he was then brought to a padded room at Kings County Hospital for a nine-hour psychiatric evaluation before he was eventually released without charges.

Russo has been reassigned out of the classroom, reporting each day to wait for more than six hours at the superintendent’s office in Bay Ridge where he has been biding his time in a cubicle ever since, he said.

The city’s Department of Education told him to undergo a medical examination on Oct. 16, but he does not know why he has not been let back into the classroom, given that police released him on the same day.

A spokesman for the department, Doug Cohen, said that Russo has been reassigned pending an investigation, but when asked what exactly was being investigated, Cohen did not respond by press time.

Russo has called on his union, the United Federation of Teachers, for help, but he has not yet received a response.

A spokesman for the teacher’s union, Dick Riley, said that the union doesn’t comment on individual cases.

Russo admits that he has had disagreements with the new principal about his teaching style — which includes meditation, yoga, mindfulness, and rap music — but he says he doesn’t go against the guidelines of the department.

The video he posted involved a character he portrays called Nightmare, who, along with his more friendly counterpart Dreams, is meant to teach his students about critical thinking and taking more than one perspective into account, according to the teacher.

“I’m playing both sides of the fence and encouraging my students to do their research and be proactive,” Russo said.

He said he had no violent intentions and that he included numerous disclaimers in the video saying that the performance was an act.

“I stop in the middle of the performance, lift up the mask and say ‘hey guys it’s still Dreams, it’s me.’ It’s very clear that I’m teaching through a perspective that I’m acting,” he said.

The video also included the caption which read, “Disclaimer: Please, keep in mind I’m a peaceful lovable ACTOR/ARTIST zero violence and/or negativity goes into my PERFORMANCE.”

The Friday after Russo was removed, some 30 students gathered in a protest during the school’s lunch hour, chanting “Who do you want? Mr. Russo,” which escalated when classes were supposed to start up again, according to a senior at the school.

“When they blew the whistle to go back to class, about 80 students went right in front of his room. They called security trying to get us to class,” said the former student of Russo’s, who didn’t want to be named because of fears of retributions from the school.

The student left after security arrived but he heard from friends that four students went into Russo’s former classroom and started flipping desks and trashing text books, refusing to return to class, according to the senior.

The following Wednesday, on Oct. 3, the school had a town hall at 11 am where the principal, along with the two assistant principals and two other teachers said that no student or staff had anything to do with Russo’s removal, according to the senior.

Several students of Russo’s have contacted the paper to voice their support for the teacher, saying that while his teaching methods were unusual, he related to the students and really cared for them.

A former Urban Action Academy student who had Russo as a U.S. history teacher and baseball coach said that Russo was encouraging and took extra time to help students.

“Mr. Russo isn’t a bad teacher, he always looked out for his students first. He would take time to help students if they had problems,” said Ronaldo Boswell.

Boswell, who is originally from Jamaica, said that Russo helped him understand American history and encouraged him to start playing baseball, even though he knew very little about the sport.

“I didn’t know nothing about baseball, he wanted to form a baseball team and he told me I should give it a try,” he said.

Boswell has since received a scholarship to play soccer and baseball at Monroe College, thanks in part to Russo.

“If it wasn’t for Mr. Russo getting me to play baseball, I don’t know if I would’ve gotten the scholarship,” he said.

Another former student said that most of her fellow students appreciated Russo’s teaching style.

“Mr. Russo was amazing, I don’t know how he got into that situation. He’s always been a very open person who talks to us about his passion for music. He was very approachable, but he still had the kids’s respect,” said Jessica Pierre, whom Russo taught in her senior year.

One local mother said that the teacher went above and beyond to help her son.

“Mr. Russo is one of the nicest people that I’ve met, he takes a lot of his own time to tutor my son,” said Yvonne Washington, adding that she fears that her son may not pass his upcoming exams without Russo’s tutoring.

“Now that he’s not there, I’m thinking of taking him to a different school,” she said.

Pierre said that Russo was targeted because of his unorthodox teaching methods and that he was treated unfairly.

“He’s a really good guy so I really feel for him in this situation. He’s just not going with the status quo, so once you go out of that, they want portray you as a bad guy,” she said.

Reach reporter Kevin Duggan at (718) 260–2511 or by e-mail at kduggan@cnglocal.com. Follow him on Twitter @kduggan16.

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