School Board Under Fire, Community Enraged

A parent representing the New Paltz Racial Equity Coalition and Sisters of Sojourner Truth presented a prepared statement during the public comment period at the recent New Paltz Central School District (NPCSD) Board of Education meeting. 

The statement, signed by 124 members of these groups and non-affiliated community members, expressed their dissatisfaction with the school administration response to incidents of racism, bullying and sexual assault.

The meeting took place on Wednesday, Feb. 13. Ten of the signers were also present at the meeting and stood in solidarity with the speaker. The speaker said that the administration has treated these types of incidents as isolated, but asserts that there is a common thread of safety and that the district’s inconsistent, reactive solutions are not sufficient.

The speaker cited 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.”

 “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,” she said. 

As troubling incidents occur, the district posts statements on their website, but the speaker said that the “insensitive and dismissive” responses were not acceptable. She added that protective and reactive strategies that build trust and support students in reaching their full potential would likely be more effective in preventing and handling such issues.

Other speakers expressed gripes about lack of security in the schools and that in cases of sexual assault the victim in the accused are not separated if they have class together. Additionally, one community member asked where the data on mandated quarterly reports are stored, and how the community can gain access to that information. Another community member stated that racial discrimination has been prominent in the NPCSD for 25 years and it has led to a decline in professional African-Americans working in the district.

According to Hudson Valley One, 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. 

The writer noted an incident in which his 10-year-old son was physically assaulted on a school bus earlier this year and that there had been no consequences for either party. He recommended that trained security personnel be implemented on buses. 

“We were able to hire an additional crisis counselor, but what good does this serve?” he said. “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 that the incident would be investigated, 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. 

“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.

“We’re listening intently,” said President of the Board of Education Michael O’Donnell. “The Board is actively working on policy revisions with a particular focus on centering the needs and comfort of victims. We thank the members of the community that have had the bravery to share their stories.”

After over a week of attempting to contact NPCSD Superintendent Maria Rice, she was unable to speak about the administration’s handling of incidents of bullying, racism and sexual assault.

“Because so much of this topic area involves student privacy rights, I am unable to provide any additional comments other than those provided to you by the Board President,” she said.