The incident took place 3½ years ago in a Newark classroom.
Jose Cotto, a first-year Spanish teacher at the Newton Street School, said he asked James Olbert, then 13, to switch seats.
"Shut the (expletive) up before I pop you!" the eighth-grader allegedly screamed at his teacher.
Next, Cotto said, the boy pulled out a cell phone and promised to "call the home boys to come and kick (his) ass."
Cotto said he then asked school security to remove the student, and he was, but Olbert was returned to class a short while later. An exasperated Cotto said he then called police, but school security turned the officers away without mentioning the death threat.
Allegations of what happened that day in March 2009 are laid out in a landmark lawsuit Cotto filed after claiming he was fired for making too much noise about the incident. This summer, he won $225,000 in a wrongful dismissal lawsuit against the school. He hasn’t received the money yet, pending a possible appeal.
But this story doesn’t end there.
The one isolated moment of rebellion — and the way it was handled — continues to affect the lives of Cotto, Olbert and Newton Street school officials, interviews and court documents show.
The school recently began an internal inquiry into the matter, and Newark police have investigated the way they responded, a rare move for a school confrontation.
Olbert, meanwhile, went on to a life of mayhem, court records show.
He now sits in the Essex County Youth House awaiting trial on a 24-count indictment charging him as the triggerman in a bloody crime spree earlier this year that left two men dead.
Educators and other officials say Olbert’s conduct at Newton Street School — as bad as it was — offered a chance for intervention that might eventually have put the student on a more promising path.
But that never happened. Whether it would have helped, no one will ever know now.
"I’m trying to look at it as an educator and say to myself, ‘I’ve intervened in kids’ lives and made a difference,’" Newark Teacher’s Union President Joseph Del Grosso said. "Why couldn’t someone maybe intervene in that kid’s life and made a difference?"
Renee Harper, a spokeswoman for Newark schools, declined to comment until the district completed an investigation after the newspaper began asking questions. Multiple calls to former Newton Street principal James Carlo were not returned.
'A DREAM JOB'
The chance to teach eighth-grade Spanish at Newton Street School was a "dream job" for Cotto.
The Brooklyn native grew up poor — he says he "shined shoes for a quarter" as a child — but the modest salary he earned in 2008 was the most money he’d ever seen. "Maybe it sounds funny, but I felt like Donald Trump," he said.
That all changed when Cotto asked Olbert to change seats in class.
"I heard Mr. Cotto tell James to sit down or something like that," and that’s when James made the threat, said HaLeem MacKenzie, a former student in the class.
Cotto immediately called security and ordered the student to be removed from the room. Then, MacKenzie says, he called police.
Vice Principal Toni Bauknight and other officials returned Olbert to class a short time later, the lawsuit says.
"I just got threatened and you bring him back to my room?" Cotto remembers asking later.
In court records and a memo filed as part of the school district’s response to the lawsuit, Bauknight says she criticized Cotto for wasting class time and acting unprofessionally,
Her advice to Cotto included reading a book — "What Every Middle School Teacher Should Know" — so he could learn how to better handle confrontations with students, according to the school’s motion to dismiss the complaint.
Cotto said he still hoped for help from the authorities. But when he went to pick up a copy of the police report in May 2009 about the incident, he found none was taken.
In May of this year, Newark Police Director Samuel DeMaio ordered an internal probe into the incident after being questioned by the newspaper. The investigation found that when police arrived at the school that day, school security officers told them they weren’t needed, DeMaio said.
"Certainly if those officers were told there was something much more serious involved, they would have pushed further," he said.
Former teachers and parents described Newton Street as a school in constant turmoil. Toni Ryan, who says her four children were all bullied there, claims her cries to administrators often fell on deaf ears.
"I didn’t understand … it baffled me," she said.
There were various incidents over the year, ranging from name-calling to a pre-planned locker room beating, according to letters Ryan sent school officials. A police report shows the attacks reached a boiling point in May 2010, when a 13-year-old confronted Ryan’s son, Tamel McKenzie, in the playground.
The teen was brandishing a knife.
"I will cut you, %*!!#," said the 13-year-old boy, according to the report.
Tamel was 7 when the threat was made. Hours later, a school aide discovered the teen carrying a stainless steel pocket knife. Ryan said she met with Carlo a short time later.
"They told me not to press charges. I said no. I went ahead and did it anyway," Ryan said. "They were pretty much trying to bully me into not pressing charges against the boy."
The attacks also apparently targeted teachers.
A former teacher, Aisha Khan, wrote several letters to the school, describing attacks she said she suffered.
In one, she claims a student in April 2011 threatened to throw her out a third-story window. A month later, Khan wrote she was assaulted by members of a sixth-grade class who threw books at her and slammed her against the classroom door.
"While I was in the nurse’s office, the cop came. He asked for the incident, I told him everything, then he went in my classroom to talk to Mr. Carlo," Khan wrote. "When I came back, the cop had already left without any report."
In the letter, Khan said Carlo asked the officer to leave. Khan, who declined to be interviewed for this story, is a tenured teacher and remains on medical leave.
Del Grosso said administrators at Newark’s public schools often try to keep police out of their buildings, fearing repercussions because the district will view it as "a mark against them."
JUST THE BEGINNING
Records show the 2009 incident at Newton Street was just the start of Olbert’s legal troubles.
His mother, Kesha Buchuse, has said her son’s hobbies included basketball, video games and freestyle rapping with his brother until 2009. That year, she said, he began to have run-ins with gang members and would disappear from home for days.
Eight months after he made the alleged threat, Olbert was arrested by Newark police on a drug charge, records show. He was arrested twice by Elizabeth police in 2010 for defiant trespass and drug possession, and once again in Newark in 2011, when he was charged with distributing heroin and cocaine.
Earlier this year, Olbert was charged with killing Miguel Torres and Wilfredo Campos during a brutal month-long crime spree. He was the triggerman in both bloody robberies, according to police, who said Olbert coldly reached through a Plexiglas shield in January and shot Torres even as the clerk was handing him money during a stick-up.
Records also suggest Olbert is connected to the Bloods street gang. Criminal records show he has a tattoo reading "52BSV" on his right arm, meaning Blood Stone Villain.
STILL A TEACHER
After losing his job and nearly his home while unemployed, Cotto — out of work for three years — now works as a teacher in Union County.
While an Essex County jury ruled unanimously in Cotto’s favor, declaring he was fired for actions that essentially amounted to "whistle-blowing," the school maintains he was a flawed teacher. In the city’s motion to dismiss his lawsuit, administrators said Cotto normally tasked students with memorization and did little to improve his lesson plans.
As for the police, an internal review found the responding officers did nothing wrong, DeMaio said.
Carlo is no longer the principal at Newton Street. He was removed earlier this year, as part of a massive reshuffling of eight of the city’s most troubled schools. Administrators at each facility were forced to reapply for their jobs as part of reforms. He remains employed by the district as a "principal without placement," meaning he likely is performing administrative duties or another undisclosed task for the district, Del Grosso said.
Bauknight retired last month. When asked about Cotto’s claims in a recent phone interview, she had little to say.
"Those are just allegations," Bauknight said. "And those allegations are lies."
The question of when Olbert transformed into an alleged gang-affiliated killer still looms large over the entire ordeal. At a press conference shortly after Olbert’s arrest in January, DeMaio wondered aloud about the defendant’s descent.
"You can’t help but think, where in that child’s life did that change come?" DeMaio asked. "Where he went from being an innocent, growing young child, to a murderous, out-of-control individual criminal."
Star-Ledger staff writer Jessica Calefati contributed to this report.