Saugerties school district taking steps to stem post-election bullying

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The 2016 presidential election is over, but some of the campaign rhetoric used by President-elect Donald Trump and intensified by some of his followers has some local children on edge. In the Saugerties Central School District, a student said they’d faced an increase in harassment since Election Day.

“Before the election I was never asked or talked about me being Hispanic,” said the student, who asked not to be identified. “Everybody just knew that I wasn’t white and they left to it, never asked where I was from, or never talked how it was different. But since the election has happened, my culture has been their main topic. Asking if I’m from Mexico, asking if I was legal or not.”

District Superintendent Seth Turner said there hadn’t been any reports of harassment, but that he’d spoken to school board President Robert Thomann over the weekend to discuss the matter. Turner added that school officials are paying close attention to do their best to prevent bullying and harassment from happening.

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“Harassment of any type, be it based on gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, it just has no place in the school system,” Turner said. “Having worked in the district, I feel like there’s a culture of acceptance. Any child that shows up at our doorstep is a child we’re going to educate as long as they’re a resident of the community of Saugerties. We’re also not immune to the ills of society, and I just hope that all of the adults who are part of the lives of the children act as such. We won’t tolerate intolerance.”

But while the expectation is there from local adults, the Saugerties High student who said they’d been harassed had a different perspective.

“Donald Trump has said plenty of things about Latinos and other races, and not all of them are nice,” said the student. “At first I didn’t understand why Hispanics didn’t like him, but after reading an article of the things he has said about my culture, I disliked him right away … It makes me disgusted as well, thinking he can say these things like it’s normal and OK.”

In Saugerties and across the state, efforts continue to ensure people know that prejudice is not okay. Rob Conlon, co-chair of GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network) Hudson Valley and himself a Kingston High School alum, said the state’s anti-bullying stance helps foster an atmosphere of inclusion.

“As of now, GLSEN Hudson Valley has received no reports of local incidents of bullying or harassment based on the recent election outcome,” Conlon said Tuesday. “In many ways, we are lucky in New York State that we have protections for students under the Dignity for All Students Act. Schools in the Hudson Valley have worked hard to meet the tenets of that law and ensure that students are provided protections from bullying and harassment based on a person’s actual or perceived race, color, weight, national origin, ethnic group, religion, religious practice, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, or sex.”

In a statement released on Nov. 12, Gov. Andrew Cuomo had a similar message. “The state of New York has a proud legacy as the progressive capital of the nation, and that is more important today than ever before,” he said two days after a swastika and “Make America White Again” was found spray-painted on the side of a little league dugout in Wellsville, a town in the western part of the state. “As New Yorkers, we have fundamentally different philosophies than what Donald Trump laid out in his campaign. So let me be absolutely clear: If anyone feels that they are under attack, I want them to know that the state of New York — the state that has the Statue of Liberty in its harbor — is their refuge. Whether you are gay or straight, Muslim or Christian, rich or poor, black or white or brown, we respect all people in the state of New York. It’s the very core of what we believe and who we are. But it’s not just what we say, we passed laws that reflect it, and we will continue to do so, no matter what happens nationally. We won’t allow a federal government that attacks immigrants to do so in our state.”

 

Resources in place

But how does that work in local school districts like Saugerties? Turner said Saugerties is unique in that it has the Redirect Center, a place for students to go where they can get help with problems like bullying or other social issues. Staffed by Gina Kiniry, the district’s social worker, and Dominic Zarella, a special education teacher and athletics coach, the Redirect Center is a place for any student to go during school hours.

And there’s help from the community at large as well. Conlon said school districts can also get help from organizations like GLSEN, the NYCLU (New York Civil Liberties Union), the YWCA, Family of Woodstock, the Hudson Valley LGBTQ Community Center and certain faith communities in creating an atmosphere not only of tolerance, but also understanding and respect.

“We have invested heavily in providing professional development for schools that addresses not only sexual orientation and gender identity/expression, but the intersection of identities,” Conlon said. “This year alone we are on track to have provided training for almost 3,000 school staff. We are also committed to making resources available to students to help them improve school climate.”

Conlon noted that Nov. 14-20 is Transgender Awareness Week, and GLSEN Hudson Valley had mailed packets of free materials and activities to the middle and high school Gay-Straight Alliances in the area, with the idea that the more all students can learn about one another, the less likely they’ll be to harbor prejudices.

“Our students are amazing,” said Conlon. “We know if we get the right tools in their hands they can be great leaders.”

But that may not be the case for some students. The high school student who spoke to the Saugerties Times said the election results last week brought on a deluge of insensitive remarks.

“The day after the election, I waked into my home room and a girl yelled to me, ‘Are you legal?’” the student said. “I took it as a joke and said yes, but as the day kept going the comments kept increasing. People would ask me how I’m going to be able to cross the border, how I’m going to be deported from America, and asking me very inappropriate questions which they only asked me about, no others, just me and my other Hispanic friends.”

Turner said school officials discussed the need to help foster an inclusive atmosphere in early September, just before students returned to the classroom. “On the first superintendent’s conference day, we had already identified at that point that this was going to be a volatile election cycle,” he said. “I spoke to the staff and said that children need to come here free from duress related to what’s going on. We did see that from day one, and I will tell you that it goes a raucous round of applause from the staff. Because it was a universal feeling that we were dealing with something that was unprecedented in the presidential race, and we wanted all of our students to be able to come to school free from the duress caused by this political season.”

The student who spoke to the Saugerties Times said that after a rush of comments the day after the election, the frequency has diminished, but has not disappeared.

“I’ve gotten pretty used to the comments that I’ve gotten,” the student said. “It has started decreasing but I think people are still going to ask and tell me about [it]. I’m sure many, and I mean many, other people of my race have dealt with the same thing. My opinion on Trump is that I don’t think he’s going to build a wall or going to deport millions causing America to decrease, but what I do know is that billions of Hispanics have dealt with his stuff and rude insults for too long. I hope we can change many people’s opinions on us to treat us like normal people, no matter our race, culture, color, religion, or opinions.”

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