Residents ask New Paltz School Board to do more about racist incidents

Issues of discrimination appear to be coming to a head in the New Paltz schools. A well-attended public forum on the issue was held after an unknown perpetrator used a carrot to scrawl a racial epithet and a swastika on a school structure last month, but after similar messages were found carved inside a high school bathroom the calls to do more have been ratcheted up. Two concerns raised by residents at the board meeting on December 6 were that delaying another public meeting until February fails to seize the moment, and that the draft action plan doesn’t allow for the voices of those most impacted to be easily heard. There were also multiple requests to release the notes compiled during the “community workshop on racial equity” held in November.

Stana Weisburd noted during public comment that building principals are tapped in the draft plan to pick team members for each school, but none of them attended the public workshop.

Part of what makes racial equity challenging to achieve, said Aidan Koehler, is the fact that those in charge of the effort “are few, and marginalized in their work.” She recounted how, as a child, she didn’t take the lessons learned in her mandatory black studies class seriously, in part because its teacher was the only person talking about those issues. “I thought she was overly dramatic” at the time, Koehler said, but the class had a “profound effect on me” as she became an adult. “Ask people, and believe what they tell you” about students of color not feeling safe in New Paltz schools, she urged.

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Joel Oppenheimer was one of several members of the public to point out that over 100 people attended that first workshop, despite only having six days’ notice. He recommended another listening session be scheduled quickly, and advertised more heavily, to better gauge the view of community members.

A number of other comments were made that reinforced those themes: more shared decision-making, and more public discussions about racial equity, would bolster trust among minority residents of the district, trustees were told.

Former board member Edgar Rodriguez pulled no punches in his comments. He reminded trustees that he’s been working on race issues in the district since 1973, and that he’s “still seeing the same problems.” He tied concerns about the inclusiveness of the proposed race-relation teams with the long history of shared decision-making in the district. Rodriguez brought with him copies of the 1999 and 2008 plans which laid out how decisions are made; the 2008 plan eliminated community participation which had been included in five committees in 1999, he explained. He placed that squarely at the feet of Superintendent Maria Rice, and said that by eliminating community-member participation, they eliminated people of color from the conversation. Rodriguez urged trustees to create a new board committee specifically to study race equity. It could include community members, he said, and did not require Rice’s support to be formed.

Grace Morrisey, student representative to the board, brought similar concerns from her peers. She said the graffiti incidents had “shaken the core of the student body,” but that teachers had taken an important step as they reinforced the anti-racist messaging presented in several assemblies held about the issue. Cameras inside the high school would make some of the students who are now scared feel more secure, she said.

In her report, Rice said that her focus has been investigating the root causes of the racial incidents. Police officers declined to investigate the carrot incident, but they will be looking into the carving. They provided a matrix to school officials to help them understand when law enforcement officers consider an incident serious enough to become fully involved. The assemblies held sent a message that such incidents will not be tolerated, she said. All she said about shared decision-making was, “We do want to hear the voice of the community.”

Board members grappled with whether having another workshop quickly would be productive or not. Some trustees feel it’s an important step, sending a message to community members that they are taking the issue seriously. Others prefer to wait, not because they aren’t taking it seriously, but because they want time to digest the information gathered at the November session.

“What is the purpose of the February meeting?” asked board vice president Alison Easton, referring to the session which was promised at that time. “Will we have had time to act?” She called the November workshop “profound,” and wanted trustees and administrators to have time to understand that feedback. Part of what slows the process down is the need to wait until public meetings to discuss the issues, she said.

In the second public comment session at the end of the meeting, Rodriguez said he felt that concern might be overblown; board members are welcome to discuss things in small groups, he said.

Sophia Skiles framed it as a “sense of readiness” versus a “sense of availability,” and said that having another workshop sooner would help foster trust. Trustees agreed to dedicate most of the January 17 meeting to such a public discourse, with a snow date of January 24. The regular board meeting will begin at 6:30 p.m. at New Paltz High School, followed by a community workshop regarding the district’s racial equity initiative.

Regarding community engagement, Skiles and Teresa Thompson didn’t see entirely eye to eye. Thompson considers these sessions sufficient community involvement, but Skiles told her, “They will tell us if they feel involved.”

How to release the notes taken by participants at the November workshop was another challenging issue. Skiles thought it important to provide some context to the material compiled by groups of residents sitting together in groups, since not everything they reported back was accurate. However, Rice noted that even if incorrect, it’s “the truth that some people know.” It was agreed that the material would be posted on December 7 or as soon thereafter as Skiles provided a contextual note as prelude.

Skiles noted that while this process is in its infancy, the history of issues is a long one. Thompson suggested that they “need to let go of what happened in the past,” as it is “not going to move us forward.”

Her colleague Kathy Preston saw things differently, saying that these issues “are still very raw” and that “dismissing [them] out of hand” is not realistic, given that the problems themselves are ongoing.

“We can’t litigate the past, but we can certainly learn from it,” said Skiles. O’Donnell agreed, noting that district residents without trust are unlikely to dismiss the past.

“Are we going to be held accountable for things that happened twenty years ago?” asked Thompson.

“Yes, we are,” O’Donnell replied.

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