APRIL 23, 1962
SAN DIEGO—In a decision of far-reaching importance earlier this month, the N. Y. State Court of Appeals handed down its opinion covering an application made by the board of the Wiltwyck School for Boys to be allowed to establish themselves in the town of Yorktown, Westchester County. The case had been fought in the courts for three years, and this final decision reversed two previous ones which had held up construction of the Wiltwyck School on land which they had bought. The contention of the Yorktown zoning board was that this was not an educational institution; but the Appeals Court ruled that it was, and the school can now go ahead with its plans.
True, the students at Wiltwyck School are sometimes emotionally disturbed children. Of the 100 pupils, about half are referred by the Domestic Relations Court in New York City and the rest come through the city's welfare department or through private welfare agencies. The state's welfare department recommended some time ago that this school, previously located at Esopus, N. Y., should move nearer to New York City in order to reduce the travel time and thus enable parents to visit their children more frequently. Social workers work with the parents as well as with the children. They try to improve the homes from which the children come so that they may return there without danger of reverting to the old bad habits. The N. Y. State Welfare Department, in short, felt that having the school nearer New York City would be of assistance in this rehabilitation.
It was a great disappointment that the new community did not accept the school in the same spirit of friendliness which has surrounded its present location. The fact that court action had to be taken filled many of us who have long been friends of the school with a deep sense of regret. Without question, however, this final battle had to be carried on in order to ensure for the future the precedent which would allow youngsters suffering under disabilities to have the opportunity for education under desirable circumstances. The importance of this decision is perhaps not fully realized yet, but it can reach far into the future.
I was pleased to note that the court's opinion stated: "We recognize that some of Wiltwyck's children have been so-called `bad boys,' but it is common knowledge that conventional public schools in and out of New York City have suffered from `bad boys' in the past." Moreover, it is important to note that these youngsters, though they may be emotionally disturbed and delinquent, are too young to be labelled as criminals. Boys must be under the age of 12 for the courts to send them to Wiltwyck, and the majority of the children are between eight and 12 years old when they arrive.
These 100 boys, when they move into their new surroundings at Yorktown, will need the sympathetic interest of their neighbors. In spite of the bitterness that may have been engendered by the court proceedings, I hope people will come to realize that actually this is a great opportunity to be of service by treating there children with more kindness than they would usually extend to unknown neighbors.
A little incident at one of the picnics which I have held annually for the Wiltwyck boys at Hyde Park will, I think, emphasize how much a personal contact means for these youngsters whose background is often such an unhappy one. As I was greeting the boys on their arrival at Hyde Park, one little white boy stopped in front of me and said:
"Mrs. Roosevelt, do you remember me?"
"Yes," I answered, "I remember all of you. I have seen you at school and many of you were here last year. Of course, I remember you."
The little boy, with determined face, looked me straight in the eye and said: "Mrs. Roosevelt, what's my name?"
I had to explain that there were 100 boys and that I could not remember all of their names because I was an old lady and my memory was not as good as it once was.
He then told me his name. But he was so anxious to be identified by someone that, within five minutes, he stood before me again demanding:
"Mrs. Roosevelt, what's my name?"
To have a friend who knows you by name gives you a sense that you are not alone in the world. This is above all else what every single one of the Wiltwyck boys needs.