Onteora readies plans for combating racism

Kevin Salem

The rally in Charlottesville by white-supremacists and neo-Nazis which lead to an outpouring of violence including three deaths have the Onteora District Board of Education trustees concerned that some of this tension may affect students. District officials were asked at the August 22 board of education meeting, how teachers may be pro-active in approaching the subject. “In light of recent events and things that have floated on top nationally, I would like to have a summary of what the administration is doing in terms of combating racism,” said Trustee Laurie Osmond. Although she said she was aware that the district has many ways it addresses prejudice, she contended that this is an exceptional time given what appears to be blatant hateful rhetoric coupled with symbols of swastikas and confederate flags.

Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum Marystephanie Corsones responded. “An administrative team on Monday came together and began to brainstorm ways we could support our staff in how to open our school and community in light of these events.” She explained that there will be a staff development session before the first day of school (September 6), and teachers would be given ways to approach current events on racial tensions. “It’s a multipronged approach because it’s not just an immediate response to this, but how do we provide our staff with the tools necessary to facilitate discussions and conversations around sensitive and potential controversial issues,” she said.

Trustee Rob Kurnit addressed the legal aspect. “I’m curious how you are interacting with our lawyers because it’s my understanding that there was some kind of an incident last year where students were wearing confederate flags to school and it’s unclear how to deal with that. And I feel with what is going on in our country today, it’s obvious to me how to deal with it but I don’t know if we have the legal tools at our disposal.”


Corsones replied, “One of our starting points is to have a discussion with our legal counsel and we are in the process on how to approach it and he is preparing a power-point for next week (staff development) and how we are going to be addressing not just our legal issues under Title IX, but freedom of speech and where it comes in.” Title IX protects people from discrimination based on gender in educational programs and activities.

The district does have a dress code, however it does not give specifics on what is considered offensive when it comes to specific symbols such as a confederate flag. If a symbol is deemed a disruption to education, it can be prohibited. In a separate interview School Board President Kevin Salem said, “How things disrupt or don’t disrupt changes and right now we mentioned it during the meeting. Over the last year our culture has changed in this country, and in this school. When culture changes, the administration and board have to act. So we are a week out from something that happened,” he continued, “we’ve got school coming and I don’t think this is as simple of an issue as everybody would want it to be.”

In other news…

– Trustee Valerie Storey questioned the cost and necessity of a sign language interpreter when the district already has a teacher of deaf and hard of hearing students. “Is there a policy or regulation where that person cannot be an interpreter,” she asked.

– Superintendent Victoria McLaren said, “That person has regular assignments, so if things are happening during the workday we can’t take that person who maybe servicing students.” The contract specifies $90 per-hour plus transportation travel rates and a three-day notice on cancellations with no cap on how much can be spent. “This could end up costing us a lot of money,” said Storey. McLaren said she would rework the contract with an estimated maximum and cap it. McLaren announced that Hannaford in West Hurley will be opening August 30 and the district looks forward to working with the supermarket. “They have reached out to us and let us know that they will be making a donation. We’re hopeful that we are going to work with them to continue to provide support to our students as we move forward…We’ll be encouraging them to continue donating to student fundraisers, clubs and activities to help groups raise money for the things that they need.”