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 may have some local children on edge. KCSD Superintendent Paul Padalino said school officials are paying close attention, but he added that the district has always done so.
“Our building administrators are keenly aware of the rhetoric around the election this year,” he said Tuesday. “Our number one concern, regardless of whether it’s about an election or anything else is not only our students’ physical safety, but also the emotional well-being of our students. They’re a little more vigilant lately keeping their eyes and ears open.”
Padalino said he hadn’t heard any reports of discrimination based on race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation since Election Day, adding that the district is open to many different students from many different backgrounds.
“We’re a diverse district, and so there are members of many groups who attend our schools, and our job is to make sure they are physically and emotionally safe,” Padalino said. “We want our students to not be threatened and not feel threatened. We want this to be a safe environment, we know it’s our responsibility, and we take it very seriously.”
Rob Conlon, co-chair of GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network) Hudson Valley, himself a Kingston High alum, said that 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. “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.”
But how does that work in local school districts like Kingston? “I think vigilance is most important,” said Padalino. “This comes at a time when we’re really taking a closer look at how we do things discipline-wise, and socially and emotionally anyway. We’re rewriting our code of conduct to make it more about restorative justice, and about collaboration and cooperation with parents and students.”
Restorative justice, Padalino said, was less punitive than it is about exploring the real life consequences of a student’s actions and understanding where they might come from.
“That’s kind of been the focus of our policy committee for the past three or four months,” Padalino said. “We’re getting very close to being able to have our [school] board adopt a new policy, and we’re scheduling training with our administrators for a restorative justice model. This year one of our main initiatives is social and emotional well-being of our students.”
Conlon said that districts like the KCSD can also get help from organizations like GLSEN, the NYCLU (New York Civil Liberties Union), the YWCA, Family of Woodstock, the Hudson Vallet LGBTQ Community Center, and 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.”
In Kingston, school officials and teachers coincidentally met on Election Day to discuss social and emotional learning in the district. “We want to make sure we’re reaching all students where they are and determining what kind of support we can offer beyond education, beyond teaching, beyond the ABC’s and 123’s,” Padalino said. “I think the environment we strive for everyday is where we need to be, regardless of anything political that’s going on. It’s good for our kids, it’s good for our community. And we need to make sure that every student that walks through the door in the Kingston City School District regardless of their race, ethnicity, their gender identity, that they feel safe and that they belong.”