Brooklyn high school baffled by media frenzy over migrant families’ one-night stay

A girl with glasses, a pink scarf, and tan coat looks at the camera.
James Madison High School senior Zola Zephirin said she wasn’t disrupted by migrants staying in the school’s gym during a storm, Jan. 11, 2024. (Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY)

This article is part of an ongoing collaboration between Chalkbeat and THE CITY.

Students at James Madison High School Madison returned to classes Thursday without fanfare, after the school received hate calls and even a bomb threat for serving as an emergency shelter Tuesday night and early Wednesday morning for migrants with children.

The families living in tents in an airfield arrived at the school after 5 p.m. on Tuesday to wait out a heavy rain and wind storm, and left the school before 5 a.m. Wednesday morning. Even before their departure, the migrants’ presence and the principal’s decision to shift to remote classes on Wednesday immediately became a talking point for right-wing pundits nationwide.

But parents, staffers and students who spoke with THE CITY expressed shock that the school had made it into the national spotlight, for what they saw, in the scheme of things, as a relatively minor disruption.

“I understand the frustration. No one wants their kids to be displaced out of their school, but it was just one day,” said Marsha Thompson-Miles, a mother of an 11th grader at the school and the head of its Parent-Teacher Association.

“In America we have so much and we have to deal with so little. Wars are raging around the world and we don’t really feel the effects of it,” she said, adding she felt pride that the school had provided a space for families in need.

“For one night people didn’t have to deal with rain and wind and the elements. They felt safe and warm,” she added.

While pundits raged about a supposed “takeover,” students had one day of remote lessons on Wednesday, with after-school activities canceled and a dance scheduled for that evening postponed.

School officials said the NYPD had thoroughly inspected the building and custodians gave it a deep clean before students and staff returned on Thursday.

A staffer who asked not to be named said Wednesdays tend to be a shorter day for students, and that the lingering impact of the storm would have made it difficult for some students to get to school in any event.

“It has been pretty quiet here,” the staffer said. “We went remote for one day, that’s it.”

Hate calls and a bomb threat

As 70-mile-an-hour gusts of wind bore down on New York City Tuesday, officials hastily evacuated 1,900 parents and children from a tent shelter located at the remote Floyd Bennett Field, busing them to the high school to shelter in the school gym, auditorium and cafeteria in chairs and on the ground for the night.

While their stay lasted for less than 12 hours, prominent conservatives treated the migrants’ presence at the school as nothing less than an invasion, with talk radio dedicating hours to the topic while Elon Musk tweeted that migrants “will come for your homes” next. Angry commenters followed suit, flooding the school’s Facebook page after officials announced the day of remote learning.

“They are putting these people over our students,” one commenter said. Another added: “That school needs to be disinfected.”

The vitriol wasn’t just online. A woman identifying herself as an “agitated mother” heckled the migrants as they entered the school in the rain Tuesday evening. And during a Zoom call hosted by Principal Jodie Cohen and Office of Emergency Management Commissioner Zach Iscol, the two were shouted down by several outraged parents, several attendees said.

By Wednesday, city officials said the school had received “a torrent of hate calls and even a bomb threat,” Iscol said at a press briefing that morning. He added, “we don’t foresee us using James Madison High School again.”

Later on Wednesday, Assemblymember Michael Novakhov (R-Brooklyn) held a rally outside the school where he invoked the white nationalist “great replacement” conspiracy theory, saying that “they wanna bring more and more people who rely on the government and vote for them.”

Republican Councilmember Inna Vernikov, who represents parts of southern Brooklyn, made the rounds on national television to complain that “our kids are really being punished.”

On Thursday, Curtis Sliwa, who ran against Mayor Eric Adams in the 2021 mayoral election and has been rallying against migrant shelters over the last year, blocked traffic outside of the Kings Plaza Shopping Center while calling for the Floyd Bennett shelter to close.

“Now the parents and the children who go to Madison High School have to be penalized,” he said. “Nobody’s happy about the situation.”

A boy with glasses wearing a black jacket over a Harvard sweatshirt and headphones around his neck stands in front of a school.
James Madison High School junior Akib Chowdhury said he wasn’t disrupted by migrants staying in the school’s gym during a storm, Jan. 11, 2024. (Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY)

“It was kind of sad to see,” he said, when the migrants “just want a better place, a better place to live.”

‘Kind of crazy’

The neighborhoods of Marine Park, Madison, and Midwood surrounding the high school have trended Republican, voting heavily for Trump in 2016.

But members of the school community pointed out James Madison’s diverse student body; out of 3,700 students, 500 are English language learners; 19% are Asian, 16% are Latino and 10% are Black, according to Department of Education statistics.

Others pointed out the school’s history as the alma mater of Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Chuck Schumer and Bernie Sanders and a place that’s long been a haven for immigrants of all kinds, from Holocaust survivors to Russians fleeing communism.

“Madison High School has always been a melting pot,” said Steve Kastenbaum, a veteran radio reporter and alumni of the school.

“People within the alumni community were quite frankly appalled that some people in Brooklyn exhibited the vitriolic rhetoric that was aimed at these people who were seeking shelter in a storm.”

A few students leaving the high school Thursday afternoon expressed their own trepidation about what had happened there.

“They put them over us students which is kind of crazy,” said a 15-year-old.

Another student lamented the school no longer felt safe for her. “It doesn’t feel like my safe space. It usually feels like my safe space.”

But many others took the remote day in stride, and said they felt their voices had been missing from the national news about their school. Zola Zephirin, a senior, said many students were upset by how things appeared on television and online.

“The hostility towards the migrants was definitely uncalled for,” she said. “These are people, they have families, they come here and attempt to make a better life, just like many of the students at Madison.”

Gwynne Hogan covers Brooklyn for THE CITY.

Michael Elsen-Rooney is a reporter for Chalkbeat New York, covering NYC public schools. Contact Michael at melsen-rooney@chalkbeat.org.

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