The mother of a Saugerties teen who says she was the victim of anti-Semitic harassment at the junior high school is calling on Saugerties Central School District officials to take a stronger stand against racial, religious and ethnic bias.
“Susan,” who asked that her real name not be used out of concern for her daughter’s privacy, said the incident occurred on March 2 in an eighth-grade math class at the junior high school after her daughter mentioned in conversation that she was Jewish. Susan said that a female classmate then asked a boy for coin, then flung it towards her daughter. When her daughter picked it up and handed it back to her, Susan said the girl responded, “Don’t you want it you grimy Jew?” Susan said that when she learned of the incident, she immediately contacted school officials.
The next day, she said, she met with high school Vice Principal Lee Molyneaux and a school social worker who coordinates the school’s compliance with the state’s anti-bullying Dignity for All Students Act. Susan said the administrators expressed concern over the incident and appeared receptive to her request that more be done to combat bias harassment in the school. But, she said, they also seemed to view the incident in isolation, as a single occurrence rather than part of a larger problem. In further conversations with her daughter, Susan said, she learned that anti-Semitic and racist comments were common at the school.
“This isn’t an isolated occurrence that just slipped through the cracks,” said Susan. “This is going on every day in the cafeteria.”
Another Saugerties parent, Zach Carey, said that incident, and the school’s response, was similar to what happened several years ago when his daughter, now a high school senior was at the junior high school. Carey said after he reported that students had hurled pennies, along with anti-Semitic remarks, at his daughter, school officials’ response was tepid
“They basically brought [the perpetrators] into the office and told them not to do it again,” said Carey. “There were no consequences of any sort and no follow-through.”
School officials have remained tight-lipped about the incident and efforts to combat bias harassment in the district in general. Junior High School Principal Thomas Averill did not respond to an email, or reply to several calls for comment over the past two weeks. Saugerties School Superintendent Seth Turner responded to interview requests with a brief emailed statement stating that the school handled incidents in compliance with state and federal law. In the email Turner also denied that the school was “stonewalling” media inquiries and said that he was aware of a social media post by a reporter asking about bias incidents in Saugerties schools.
Members of the Saugerties Board of Education did not reply to emails to their official district accounts seeking comment.
On March 14, Deputy Schools Superintendent Larry Mautone emailed a response to a reporter’s questions that detailed three district polices based on state and federal law that prohibit discrimination and, in the case of the Dignity for All Students Act, requires schools to investigate and report bullying based on, among other things, race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability and weight. Each school in the district also employs two DASA coordinators trained to investigate and respond to allegations of bullying, harassment and discrimination. Mautone added that the junior/senior high school featured a “redirect room” designed to “raise awareness and sensitivity to acts of bullying and discrimination.”
Mautone also detailed the school’s response to allegations like the one reported by Susan, writing: “All district investigations are completed promptly after receipt of any reports and are handled in compliance with district policy and state and/or federal law. In the event any such investigation reveals harassment, bullying, and/or discrimination, the district will take prompt action reasonably calculated to end the harassment, bullying, and/or discrimination, eliminate any hostile environment, create a more positive school culture and climate, prevent recurrence of the behavior, and ensure the safety of the student or students against whom such harassment, bullying, and/or discrimination was directed. Such actions will be taken consistent with applicable laws and regulations, district policies and administrative regulations, and collective bargaining agreements, as well as the district’s code of conduct and any and all applicable guidelines approved by the board.”
Mautone also wrote that Saugerties schools had not experienced a rise in bias harassment in the 2016-2017 school year. While the district has not yet fulfilled a Freedom of Information Act Request for records of reportable incidents under DASA, statistics available from the State Education Department show that reportable incidents at the junior high school declined from 37 during the 2014-2015 school year to nine in the school year that ended in June 2016. No information was available on DASA incidents during the 2016-2017 school year.
If Mautone’s assessment is correct, the district would appear to be bucking a nationwide trend that has seen a sharp increase in bias incidents driven by the divisive 2016 presidential election. In an unscientific poll of 10,000 education professionals conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center, one quarter reported “specific incidents of bigotry and harassment that can be directly traced to election rhetoric.” The incidents ranged from racist graffiti and name calling to physical assaults. Half reported that students were “targeting each other” based on which candidate they had supported during the election. Another 40 percent reported derogatory language aimed at students of color, Muslims, immigrants and gays. Locally, Anti-Defamation League anti-bias educator for Upstate New York, Beth Martinez, said that she had seen a major increase in reported bias incidents in schools since November’s election.
“I’m getting a lot of calls and emails from parents and schools,” said Martinez. “In some cases the schools are being proactive and in some cases they’re being reactive because they’ve had incidents.”
Martinez coordinates the ADL’s “No Place for Hate” program in 53 upstate schools. The protocol calls for participating schools to form a committee of parents, teachers, administrators and students to address bias harassment and bullying. Students are also asked to sign a “resolution of respect” committing to combating bias in school. Finally, participating schools must hold three anti-bias/bullying events over the course of a school year. The events typically involve small-group training for teachers and administrators on how to recognize and respond to bias incidents.
“We find an intersect between bias and bullying, the two really go hand in hand,” said Martinez. “So if you want to address bullying, bias harassment has to be part of the conversation.”
Susan, meanwhile, is still waiting to find out how school officials will address her concerns. A school board meeting this week where board members were set to discuss the incident was postponed due to a snowstorm. Susan said she hopes the resolution will involve something more than addressing a single act by a single student.
“Talking to my daughter it sounds like that kind of language is commonplace, kids think [calling someone a grimy Jew] is the same as saying ‘you jerk,’” said Susan. “I think there needs to be some kind of program that’s part of the curriculum that helps children understand why these things are hurtful and that they’re not OK.”