At the recent regular meeting of the New Paltz Central School District Board of Education on Wednesday, May 8, trustees heard from two residents concerned about the current policy regarding threats of gun violence and recent incidents of racism and anti-Semitism in the schools.
Notifying parents of threats
New Paltz resident and district parent, Hillary Wilson, spoke about a May 1 incident at the high school, in which a student in her daughter’s class was “Juuling” (using an e-cigarette) during class. (And this wasn’t even the first time, she said.) Wilson’s daughter and her classmates notified the teacher.
On the same day, the student who was Juuling posted two photos on his Instagram account. The first was a meme of an actor pointing a gun directly at the camera, Wilson said, accompanied by the student’s comments making a direct threat against her daughter, her classmate and their teacher. The second photo appeared to be of the student holding a pistol, indicating he was “strapped” (had a gun).
“My daughter did not make me aware of these posts,” noted Wilson. “However, two days later, on May 3, a friend of my daughter shared the screenshots she took of these posts with my daughter, and the girls showed their teacher, who immediately instructed them to show the pictures to the administrators at the high school and to tell their parents.”
Wilson said she learned about all this at approximately 11 a.m., and spent the remainder of the day on the phone talking and texting about the matter. She was in contact with the mother of her daughter’s friend and with the New Paltz Police Department, to ensure they had been notified and were engaged on the matter. But Wilson said it took five hours, until approximately 4 p.m., before she was contacted by New Paltz school district administrators. “Members of the board and Superintendent Rice: If your child’s school learned that your child’s life had been threatened on social media, how quickly would you want them to contact you?” she asked.
Wilson said that school officials told her they’d reached out to her earlier that day when they learned about the incident and were unsuccessful, but Wilson noted that she’d had her phone in her hand all day and had heard nothing.
There were several issues she could address on this matter, said Wilson, but limited her comments at the meeting to asking the board to amend their district policy manual to reflect a policy of notifying parents immediately when their child was threatened. Wilson asked for prompt response on her request.
Racism and anti-Semitism
Trustees also heard public comment from Bianca Tanis, New Paltz resident and educator in another district who is on the ballot May 21 to join the New Paltz board as member (one of two people running for two open seats). She spoke of the ten recent incidents of racism and anti-Semitism that have taken place in all four schools over the past four months, which the district notified parents about through letters. Tanis said that while parents appreciate the district’s transparency and efforts to keep parents informed, “we are deeply concerned at the lack of any specific educational responses to the incidents.”
Tanis details reports about a swastika found at the high school and three swastikas found at the middle school, all in a matter of weeks. “This spring, there was an incident at Lenape with students using the ‘N’ word, and an incident recently at Duzine with students using racially pejorative language toward other students. To date there have been no specific school-wide responses or efforts that would comfort and assure students who may be feeling fear or confusion, and no specific education regarding the meaning of these images and words.”
This is not acceptable, she said, noting that “the passage of time with no clear or specific response to these incidents sends a strong message, but unfortunately it is the wrong message.”
Individuals who have reached out to the district about these incidents have been told there are efforts underway to engage with community and religious leaders and experts to offer opportunities for dialogue and education, Tanis said, adding that while those are important considerations that would be beneficial in the long run, they don’t address the immediate needs of students.
“All of these incidents are deeply troubling and important opportunities to educate students and improve the current school climate. The responses so far have focused solely on identifying and punishing the perpetrators, but these are opportunities lost and the students most impacted left to suffer. We would like to know when we can expect specific and building-wide educational responses to these incidents. This is a crisis and we ask the district to respond accordingly. We urge the district to adopt a standard protocol to address these incidents in the days that follow, not weeks or months later.”