A journaling assignment in a Saugerties High School English class is causing controversy throughout the community, leading to allegations of racism and calls for the teacher who assigned it to step down.
A screenshot of what appears to be the exercise given by teacher Hope Antonelli asked students to “(c)reate a bold topic/thematic sentence. Justify your claim key pieces of evidence, and also address the alternate claim.”
Two examples were given:
“George Floyd did not die because Chauvin’s knee was on his neck. He died from a heart attack and drug overdose. However, because Chauvin used excessive force and failed to render aid, he was convicted on all three counts by a jury of his peers. (Arrest was over a counterfeit $20 bill)”
“Brandon Mitchell was a juror in the trial. He was asked if he had any racially provoked negativity against police officers, would any of these incidents sway his judgment. He was specifically asked asked (sic) if he was involved in BLM and if he protested in any form against the officers involved in the George Floyd case. He answered no to both. New evidence has surfaced that he could not have been forthcoming in his statements. Should the Derek Chauvin case be retried because of Brandon Mitchell? Why or Why Not?”
School officials yesterday would not confirm that the screenshot was authentic, citing confidentiality. Hudson Valley One received two separate examples from parents (here and here). Yesterday, a letter from district Superintendent Kirk Reinhardt was posted to the district website yesterday that referenced “a journaling assignment given in a Saugerties High School English class that was interpreted by at least one student to include biased content” and made several allusions to racial tensions and stated the board’s Diversity Committee would be meeting to discuss the issue.
In his letter to the community, Reinhardt addressed the importance of inclusivity to the district, adding that an investigation into the incident was underway to ensure “inappropriate assignments are not introduced to our students, intentional or not.”
Reinhardt’s letter also said the assignment was immediately revised after district officials were made aware that it was causing a student to be uncomfortable.
Calls for teacher to be fired
In his interview with Hudson Valley One, Reinhardt said that he’d received “well over 50 or 60 e-mails from parents” about the issue, adding that Saugerties High Principal Tim Reid and members of the Board of Education had also heard from the community.
A group of protesters stood outside the high school on Tuesday morning seeking answers and calling for the firing of Antonelli. Hours later, two candidates for Town Board, Nina Schmidbaur and Tim Scott, released a joint statement on Facebook seeking Antonelli’s removal.
“We stand with the students and parents of Saugerties High School in opposition to the racist school assignment given by Mrs. Antonelli,” read Schmidbaur and Scott’s statement. “George Floyd was killed by police brutality. Revisionist history like this is disgraceful and dangerous. Because we believe in a zero tolerance policy on racism, we call for the termination of Mrs. Antonelli from Saugerties Central School District.”
School Board president says students and teachers should be allowed to make mistakes
During a meeting of the Board of Education on Tuesday night, trustees addressed the situation indirectly ahead of an executive session to discuss the issue. Though they acknowledged that they’d received numerous public comments on the matter, they declined to read them.
Board President Robert Thomann said he believed both students and teachers should be allowed to make mistakes.
“It was about a teacher giving an assignment and a student being uncomfortable with it,” Thomann said, before citing the bible verse John 8:7 (“He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.”)
“Go figure, times haven’t changed too much,” Thomann said. “From what I saw in my inbox, what I saw on social media, there are a lot of people anxious to cast stones at an educator. Our teachers are tremendously dedicated…I think in this district we have to allow our students, (and) we have to allow our teachers to make mistakes, because that’s how you learn. You don’t learn by getting a pat on the back, saying ‘good job.’ You don’t learn by getting a participation trophy.”
An attempt to reach Antonelli for comment through her school e-mail address was referred to the district’s Director of Human Resources Daniel Erceg.
Superintendent: District must ‘do better’
Reinhardt this week spoke about his desire since arriving in the district ahead of the 2019-20 school year to create a climate where Saugerties students feel “safe, and respected and valued, and can reach their highest potential.”
The superintendent added that the district needs to work harder to do better.
“The racial and social tensions in our nation are significantly heightened because crucial discussions about racism have not always taken place in the past,” Reinhardt said in his letter to the community. “This is hard, but necessary work and we are all still learning. We acknowledge that we might get things wrong as we journey forward, but we know we must do better and are working to do so. This situation has elevated the need to be more conscious of the unintended consequences of assignments containing sensitive topics, especially those that involve race. We sincerely apologize to anyone who felt hurt by this.”
Reinhardt noted that the district has a Diversity Committee that meets on the third Wednesday of every month, where they will seek input from the community to prevent issues like the journaling assignment from happening again. He added that a Superintendent’s Conference Day scheduled for Tuesday, May 18 would include the use of “racially conscious curriculum” and a discussion about equity with the entire instructional staff.
“We strive to be a school environment where all students feel they are seen, heard, respected, and valued equally,” Reinhardt wrote. “We will accept no less.”
Over the past week, the issue has divided the community, with some hoping to see Antonelli fired, claiming the assignment was part of a pattern of bigotry from the teacher; others say that Antonelli sought to promote critical thinking and want her to remain with the district. Dueling petitions on change.org saw the latter faction receive five times as many signatures than the former as of Monday morning, May 17.
Meanwhile, Antonelli has been reassigned within the district according to a letter from Reinhardt posted to the district website on Wednesday, May 12.
“The District is investigating allegations of an inappropriate journalism assignment at the High School level,” reads Reinhardt’s letter. “The teacher has been reassigned pending the outcome of that investigation. The District takes allegations of this nature very seriously and wishes to emphasize that there are existing procedures under its Dignity for All Students Act (DASA) policy to make complaints or to bring to the District’s attention, any issues of this nature.”
Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was convicted of the May 25, 2020 murder of George Floyd on April 20. A video that showed Chauvin restraining Floyd by placing his knee on Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes, ending in Floyd’s death, sparked the largest protests in decades, including a march of hundreds through Saugerties on June 12, 2020.