New Paltz School Board members are likely to approve an ad-hoc committee on racial equity in March, and seem receptive to it becoming a permanent board committee thereafter.
Much of the discussion at last week’s school board meeting centered around the committee’s makeup and how members would be selected. Not every stakeholder group has a culture of democratic selection, and other means of identifying leaders should be respected according to Edgar Rodriguez, one of the proponents of the plan. That’s also why the coalition of community members who put forth a proposal are recommending the committee operate by consensus. However, there was some skepticism expressed about whether consensus might not do more harm than good when bringing together a group of people with very different views. The question of who chairs such a group is also critical, and as yet unanswered.
Which groups will have a seat at this table, whether they decide things by voting or not, is still in contention. Student Caleb Sheedy argued for a heavy student presence; as many as a dozen, he said, which he envisioned cycling on and off every few months like the student representatives to the school board. His reasoning was that these are the people who experience the problems. Trustee Teresa Thompson envisioned students remaining on the committee throughout their high school career. Including middle school students was also considered.
Former board member KT Tobin said that this initiative “will fail” if people of color are not heavily represented. “We can’t [establish racial equity] as white people.” In the end, when the committee meets might be the most important defining characteristic of who joins it.
The suspension and reestablishment of the superintendent’s diversity committee was also discussed. Former board president Aimee Hemminger took responsibility for recommending that Superintendent Maria Rice do away with it, which the superintendent can be unilaterally with committees under her purview; Hemminger said, “I was wrong” to suggest that. After considerable discussion it seemed that trustees agreed that this and the racial equity committee will not be doing double work, for several reasons. For one, a superintendent’s committee focuses on procedure rather than policy, like a board committee; for another, diversity is much broader than racial issues alone.
The members of the student club Youth for Unity are focused on events which will foster the very appreciation of diversity which many community members consider critical to the education of youth. Their club activities have such things as attending a multicultural conference at SUNY New Paltz and taking a field trip through historic Harlem, but they also plan activities for the wider student body. Those have included a screening of 13th — a movie about race in the criminal justice system — during Black History Month, as well as panel discussions, scavenger hunts, and other awareness-raising activities.
The many initiatives around diversity education and the related policies forbidding bullying might be having an effect, but that’s not easy to see if one is a student who is still subject to harsh treatment. One such student, Maryann Baxter, told board members as much. Flanked by two friends who stood in support of her message, she recounted how she is reluctant to stand up in class because students will often laugh at or make comments about her when she does. Under those conditions, she said, a child’s brain shuts down and “they learn nothing.” School buses, always challenging since typically the only adult on board is charged with driving the vehicle safely, are something she prefers to avoid. She questioned how effective an anti-bullying policy is if it doesn’t apply to teachers, one of whom she said has called her “pathetic.” School social workers have turned her away, she said, and she has tried without success to get help for her situation. “If I had a choice, I wouldn’t go here anymore,” she told trustees.
During her comments later on in the meeting, Superintendent Rice noted that school counselors are only permitted to engage in academic and crisis counseling, which is why a year ago an arrangement was struck to bring in counselors from Astor Services. Rice said that the two days a week those therapists are on site are booked up regularly, and that a third day would be added as of March 1. According to the press release of Feb. 17, 2017, the original plan called for three days a week; there was not time to contact Rice for a clarification before press time. The services are billed directly to parents or their insurance providers.
Another closely-related issue on the table is the equity report card, the first iteration of which is due to be made public soon. ++