Human Rights

‘Off the Rails,’ Story of A One-Track Mind

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From the time he was a young boy, Darius McCollum was fascinated by trains.  The trains were his hiding spot to get away from his troubles.  But when he took it upon himself to steal trains, he became infamous.

Off the Rails, a film by Adam Irving that tells Darius’ story, gets its United States theatrical run this November, qualifying it for Oscar consideration. It can be seen in Los Angeles at the Laemmie Music Hall, November 4 through 10, and in New York City at the Metrograph Theater, November 18 through 24.

Darius McCollum, Off the Rails publicity photo.

McCollum, who is said to have Asperger’s Syndrome, has been in jail more than 30 times for taking trains and buses for joy rides (often with passengers unaware), trespassing, and impersonating various mass transit personnel. A panel of individuals with disabilities reviewed the film, making their own observations.

“I never saw someone who took so much pride in his job,” said reviewer Joseph Padalino. “He doesn’t hurt the passengers.  He calls out the stops with more enthusiasm than the real drivers. I wouldn’t even care about his disability. I would ride with him.”

“It makes you wonder how safe the train system is,” according to Anthony DiFato. “You have him in jail and there is no counseling. The criminal justice system is not fair.  It’s not like he killed someone.”

McCollum’s story is also being considered for a feature film, starring Julia Roberts as McCollum’s attorney, Sally Butler.  Meanwhile, Darius sits in jail since November 2015 for his latest escapade and is facing a possible 15-year sentence behind bars. A $15 million lawsuit has been filed by Butler on McCollum’s behave, citing the lack of mental health services that he has received thus far in prison.

-Written as a group, including Dolores Palermo, Joseph Jones, Anthony DiFato, Joseph Padalino, Anthony Kefalinos, Anthony Buscarello, Jonathan Chernock, Andre Fitzgerald, and others, edited by Edward Gregory and Kathryn Carse.

Willowbrook Mile Opening Day

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The memory of the infamous Willowbrook State School will not be forgotten with the opening of the Willowbrook Mile on the grounds of what is today the College of Staten Island and various agencies that still serve people with developmental disabilities.  Our crew was on-hand to cover the opening of this memorial self-guided walk with Geraldo Rivera, who was preeminent among the reporters who broke the story, and others who made this day possible.

See our full coverage, including photographs at: Willowbrook Mile Ribbon Cutting.

Willowbrook Mile Ribbon Cutting

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Geraldo Rivera helped cut the ribbon to Willowbrook Walk, a mile-long path to honor people who suffered at Willowbrook State School, today, September 14.

The reporter who exposed the horror of Willowbrook was joined by William Fritz and Michael Kress of the College of Staten Island (CSI); Diane Buglioli, Co-Chair of the event and Deputy Executive Director of A Very Special Place; NYS Assemblyman Michael Cusick; and many others, including Bernard Carabello, a former resident of Willowbrook State School who now works a patient advocate for the NYS Office of People With Developmental Disabilities.  

“I came to this place as a local reporter for Channel 7, Eyewitness News,”  Rivera told

Photo: Meredith Arout for Life-Wire News Service.

reporter Joseph Padalino. “I had some doctors who told me I had to come and see how bad conditions were here.  They got me a key so I could get in and film the conditions, which I did.”

“The problem wasn’t that people didn’t care.” Rivera continued. “The problem was that the whole notion that you could mass-produce care for the developmentally disabled the way you mass produce cars was very deeply flawed.  It was doomed to fail.  It was very archaic and it was primitive and thank God it’s now part of distant history.”

“I’d been at Willowbrook for 18 years!” Carabello told reporter Dolores Palermo. He said it was “bad, bad.  The worst place I ever lived. Geraldo came and asked for me at Willowbrook. And that’s how I got out.  He got me out. Now I work for OPWDD. I’m an advocate. I advocate for people who can’t talk for themselves.”

“I’m just so proud to be a part of this,” Cusick told reporter Gregory Perosi. “…because this will show the history of Willowbrook and what it has become.”

Mr. Padalino observed that if not for people like  Rivera, “I would have been in Willowbrook, but I wasn’t. Thank you very much, Mr. Rivera.”

The Willowbrook MIle is a self-guided tour of the former campus of the State School.  It spans the campus of the College of Staten Island and New York State properties that still house services for people with disabilities.  Stations on the walk include a commemorative Memorial Garden Plaque, Building 29 which housed more than 100 residents, The Willowbrook Archives and Special Collections at CSI, the Institute for Basic Research, and the Elizabeth Connelly Center.

For more information on the Willowbrook Mile and to download their brochure, visit there website at

– This article was written by the Life-Wire News Service staff, with specific contributions by Anthony DiFato, Anthony Buscarello, Jonathan Chernok, Anthony Kefalinos, Joseph Jones, Dolores Palermo, Joseph Padalino, and Gregory Perosi with Kathryn Carse and Edward Gregory.

Koko Gets Her PBS Closeup

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The unique relationship between Koko, a western lowland gorilla who can speak sign language, and Penny Patterson, the psychologist who taught her to sign, is revisited in-depth in a new PBS and BBC documentary called Koko − The Gorilla Who Talks, premiering Wednesday, August 3 at 8 p.m. (Check local listings.)

Koko with Penny Patterson. Courtesy of (c) 2015 The Gorilla Foundation/ Photo by Ron Cohn.

Koko is a female western lowland gorilla, born on July 4, 1971. The name Hanabi-Ko, meaning “Fireworks Child” in Japanese, was selected as the winner of the “name the baby gorilla” contest at the San Francisco Zoo where she was born.  That is where she began working with Patterson, who moved Koko to Stanford, where she later set up the Gorilla Foundation.

Koko − The Gorilla Who Talks gives viewers a behind-the-scenes look at the unconventional life of the world’s most famous gorilla,” said Pamela A. Aguilar, Director of Programming and Development for PBS. “Through new footage and rarely seen photos and videos, the film reinvigorates our fascination with Koko and the relationship Penny first established between animals and humans more than 40 years ago.”

Koko is amazing. She listens. She knows what she wants. She is very lovable. She is very calm with Penny and she wants to learn so much.

If I was Koko, I would like to learn as much sign language as I could so I can impress people. According to Patterson, Koko learned over 1,000 signs.

Project Koko started as Patterson’s Ph.D. assignment to teach sign language to a baby gorilla. As Koko began to communicate with Penny, an intense bond forms between them. Over four decades, the teacher is transformed into a mother figure and student into a daughter figure. The public’s fascination with Koko made her a star.

The documentary captures some of the dramatic moments of Koko’s life including Penny’s battle to keep Koko from being reclaimed by the zoo where she was born, Penny’s clash with experts who doubt her success with Koko, the founding of The Gorilla Foundation, and the image of Koko mourning the death of her kitten – a moment that bought her international fame.  

Finding a mate for Koko is one of the conflicts in the story. You could tell Koko would like to be a mother. She had kittens and she was very gentle with them.  She loved the cats. One of them got run over by a car and she was very sad. She was as distraught as a human would be. A children’s book, “Koko’s Kitten” is written about the special bond and is published around the world.

The zoo wanted to take Koko back. They wanted her to have a boyfriend, but she had a difficult time mating with another gorilla.

I didn’t like the part when they said Penny had to give Koko back to the zoo because Koko loved Penny like a mother.  They knew each other for years. If Penny didn’t care for Koko, she would not have dedicated her life to teaching her.

The whole controversy could be avoided if Koko could speak because then Koko could say what she wanted to do. Koko was misunderstood because some people are ignorant and don’t understand that animals have feelings just like a human does.

If Koko had been taken away, the project would have stopped and Koko probably would have gotten sad or depressed.

Including the controversies made this a better documentary. If they cut parts out it would not be good for the show. If they didn’t have a little sadness or difficulties, people wouldn’t watch because it wouldn’t be realistic.

In order to keep Koko, to provide shelter and other gorilla companions,  Patterson began The Gorilla Foundation. It helps to continue Patterson’s research and teach people about gorillas so that they are appreciated. You can visit them on their Koko & The Gorilla Foundation Facebook page as well.

-By Joseph Padalino, with Kathryn Carse for Life-Wire News Service.

Watch the PBS preview:

And watch more clips here. at PBS.

Photos courtesy of (c) 2015 The Gorilla Foundation/ Photo by Ron Cohn.

Great Kills Parents Rally for Expansion

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Demand Facilities for Incoming Special Education Population

With colorful signs and boisterous chants, parents and PTA members rallied outside PS37/ Great Kills High School on June 15th to demand a larger school with more up-to-date facilities to serve the growing population of special needs students.

“We need a new high school now” and “Disability isn’t a choice. Discrimination is. Stop now,” were among the messages for City Schools Chancellor Carmen Farina and the Department of Education.

Advocates say with 10 eighth graduates this year and only four seats available, the problem needs to be solved now with a temporary facility for September. They are also pressing for a more permanent solution to serve their children and rejecting the DOE’s alternative to expand the District 75 program by providing seats at New Dorp High School. Their severely disabled teens, they say, need more supervision in a school with self-contained classrooms.

[Follow the  story in the Staten Island Advance at City dragging feet on special ed school expansion.]

[Watch NY1 News coverage at NY1 Online: Parents Rally for New Special Needs School.]

Murray Schneps, Willowbrook Parent, Speaks Out

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Murray B. Schneps relates the story of his daughter Lara, who resided at Willowbrook State School, at the recent Staten Island Developmental Disabilities Council Community Breakfast. The author of “I See Your Face Before Me: A Father’s Promise” spoke at the event at The Vanderbilt on Staten Island, February 26, 2016, in support of group housing for people with developmental disabilities.

Photos: Meredith Arout for Life-Wire News Service.