Rego Park vandals trash middle school greenhouse, sabotaging a cherished gardening program

Photo courtesy of Mike Zevon

Intruders have squashed the fruits of Stephen A. Halsey Junior High School’s labor.

From the spring through the summer, vandals have repeatedly broken into the student-built greenhouse in Rego Park, left behind marijuana paraphernalia and destroyed parts of the structure and plants inside.

“Long story short, people have been breaking into the garden by hopping the fence and using the greenhouse as a shelter to get stoned,” said the club’s facilitator Chris Weiss. 

Weiss said that as a result of the damages, the club may have to completely dismantle the greenhouse, which would level the school’s estimated $2,000 investment in the building and would mean that the club would not be able to use it in the fall. This would be a major disappointment for Weiss’s student group, the Green Team, a cherished institution at the school.

“I’m at a loss. I’m torn. Personally I’m very angry that this happened, but I feel so heartbroken for my kids,” said Weiss. “For them to see their efforts destroyed so brazenly and so carelessly, that’s going to be a very upsetting life lesson for them.”

After breaking a lock off the greenhouse door, the trespassers recently ripped the walls and ceiling panels off the building and destroyed the shelving by sitting on it. Weiss said that he’s had to clean up items including rolling papers, discarded cigar ends, the ends of joints and leftover munchies. 

The 112th police precinct reportedly told the school that they can try to step up their patrol of the area at night, but without any other evidence, there’s nothing further they can do.

The interlopers seem to be hopping over a low point in the fence around the school’s garden, which Principal Vincent Suraci has been trying to fix. Weiss is also hoping that Suraci can get some security cameras for the area, but until they are able to implement these safeguards and test if they’re effective, the school will have to suspend or take down the greenhouse.

In the meantime, the club is likely going to have to limit their activities to indoors. Over the year and a half since it was founded, the club has taken on some ambitious botanical and beautification projects that have included redesigning the facade of the building, creating a makeshift hydroponics system and starting a farm-to-table program. 

Part of the club’s success is getting kids out of trouble and into gardening. Weiss said that a handful of students who were getting repeated suspensions have turned their behavior around once they became enthusiastic about gardening and “taken pride in the school and themselves.” 

“To me the loss is the inability to use it with the kids. Listen, I could donate blood until we get the $2,000 back,” Weiss said. “I love watching them participate in these kinds of things where they’re getting their hands dirty or they’re tying up a plant to support it or when they’re amazed that the flower turns into a fruit on the vine. That’s the gift of it.”

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