During the public comment portion of the recent regular meeting of the New Paltz Central School District Board of Education on Wednesday, February 13, a number of parents of students in the district expressed their dissatisfaction with school administration response to a succession of troubling incidents in the schools.
The first speaker was a parent representing the New Paltz Racial Equity Coalition and Sisters of Sojourner Truth. She read from a prepared statement signed by 124 members of the group and non-affiliated community members. Ten of the signers were also present at the meeting, standing in solidarity with their representative as she spoke.
“Recent incidents of racism, sexual assault, bullying and threats of violence framed by administration as isolated, despite their frequency, call to our attention yet again how much work we have to do in order to honor the district’s mission.” The speaker noted that the district’s educational master plan established a “commitment to measured excellence and continuous growth and development of all,” creating students who are “passionate about learning and empowered to achieve their dreams.”
The incidents that have occurred may appear on the surface to be separate situations, she added, but are actually connected. “The common thread is safety, and these experiences and the response from the district have left children and parents feeling physically and/or emotionally unsafe. Because we are dealing with incidents as they occur, and identifying them as infrequent or isolated, the district is relying on reactive solutions dealing with the fallout after something awful has happened, with little or no consistency.”
The district has sent letters to parents regarding the troubling incidents as they’ve occurred and have posted statements on their website, but the speaker representing the 124 signers from the New Paltz Racial Equity Coalition and Sisters of Sojourner Truth said those responses have been “insensitive and dismissive,” which is “not acceptable.”
Dealing with individuals and not addressing the entire student body is not enough, she said, calling for “proactive and reactive strategies” that build trust and help students reach their full potential. “We need humility and sensitivity and a willingness to look critically at what is and isn’t effective.”
Other speakers referencing the same issues followed, with one parent noting that school district staff is required by state law and school district policy to report any incidents they witness of racism or sexual assault, “whether or not the target complains.” She asked where the data on mandated quarterly reports is stored, and how the community can gain access to that information.
Another speaker referenced an incident of reported sexual assault, noting that the alleged victim and the accused continued to attend classes in the same classroom while the investigation was ongoing, a situation that could lead to possible retaliation, trauma and further victimization. “It is irresponsible to do this. Administrative discretion has to be used,” she noted, to keep the alleged victim and the accused apart.
Another community member stated that racial discrimination has been going on in the New Paltz district for 25 years and that there are fewer professional African-Americans working in the district now than back then. “We need to be honest about that, and we need to do something about it.”
Two letters on the topic from community members were also read into the record by district clerk Dusti Callo. The first referenced school safety, criticizing the administration’s lack of response to recent incidences of racism, sexual harassment and bullying. He asked for security personnel to be implemented inside the schools and on the buses, noting that his ten-year-old son had been physically assaulted on the bus while on school grounds earlier this year, and that there had been no consequences for the person who attacked his son nor for his son, who provoked the incident. He was not recommending armed guards or School Resource Officers, he wrote; simply trained security personnel.
“We were able to hire an additional crisis counselor, but what good does this serve?” he asked. “Students are too afraid to speak up about what’s happening to them, let alone sit with a counselor to discuss it. Is the purpose of a crisis counselor to reassure our children that everything will be okay when one of their classmates threatens to shoot them? Or is it the job of a security guard to be alerted to said threat, search the student and their locker, and reassure the student body and parents that the threat was not a viable one and the student concerned has been referred to said counselor?”
Addressing school administration, he wrote, “If it’s your obligation to provide a safe environment, then do your job. You’re failing.”
The second letter was from a community member who wrote that her daughter had been sexually assaulted by a male classmate in January of 2018 and the crime was reported the following day. She was told an investigation would take place, but advised that it was usually a situation of “he-said, she-said.” Her daughter was left in the classroom with the accused during the course of the investigation, she added, which led to her daughter eventually being pulled out of school with the appearance that it had been she who had done something wrong. “She was missing out on her education and has to play catch-up,” the parent wrote, suggesting security cameras in the school.
Board members and the administration did not respond to community members who spoke at last week’s meeting.
School safety forum rescheduled
According to Superintendent of Schools Maria Rice, the New Paltz Central School District’s school safety informational forum originally scheduled for February 12 and cancelled due to weather conditions has been rescheduled for Tuesday, February 26 from 6:30 to 8 p.m. in room 138 at the high school. The school principals will all be present along with members of the school district’s safety committee, which includes teachers, parents, community members and New Paltz Police Chief Joseph Snyder and Lieutenant Robert Lucchesi, who will discuss changes in the district lockdown policies. Dr. Michael O’Rourke, program administrator of the Health, Safety and Risk Management program, will also attend.
“The purpose of the forum is to talk about the safety measures already in place in each of the school buildings, what is in process and what we’re planning,” Rice said. “The majority of the time will be to listen to parents, hear their questions and answer what we can and write down suggestions.”
Deputy schools superintendent Michelle Martoni will also be present to discuss the threat assessment and crisis teams established. The co-chairs of the committee are director of transportation Maureen Ryan and food services director Michael Robinson.
Childcare will be provided by the school PTSA from 6:15 to 8 p.m. in room 136.