April 22, 2004

IHS Announces Strict Policy on Bias Crimes

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Judith Pastel, superintendent of the Ithaca City School district, publicly announced a zero-tolerance discrimination policy for the district yesterday afternoon in response to a series of racially-charged incidents at the high school.

Pastel announced the new policy to a small audience at a press conference with seven other representatives for the school district and associated organizations in attendance.

She had previously stated a zero-tolerance policy for “racial, sexual orientation, gender or biased hate crimes or discriminatory acts” last Thursday at a Community Leadership Meeting. In the press conference, she addressed questions about the incidents that have occurred over the past two months.

Last Friday afternoon, the Ithaca Police Department received reports of five incidents of graffiti at Ithaca High School, three with racist implications. One threatened violence against black students, one had a racist message, and one had the Ku Klux Klan symbol, according to WBNG-TV Action News.

On March 23, the IPD brought six white and three black students into custody and charged them with disorderly conduct after a fight at the school. Some parents refused to send their children back to school after the fight, fearing more racially-biased incidents, according to the Ithaca Journal.

The staff dealt with issues of controversial clothing and graffiti prior to and after the fight. Two days after the fight, staff took disciplinary action against a student who wore a white supremacist t-shirt and white hood into school. The day after, 80 students wore camouflage to school. In addition to these events, some graffiti over the past six months has carried racist overtones.

At the conference, Pastel said that the school district is taking “explicit steps” to address these issues. Last Friday morning, the high school had two assemblies announcing the policy to students and faculty.

For the future, Pastel said that the district is focusing on “equity staff development,” with teacher training emphasizing the importance of fairness.

She said that the district is also considering changing parts of the high school curriculum. They may begin a program entitled “Racial and Ethnic Tensions: What Should We Do?” in ninth grade, in a revised form from the current twelfth grade program. However, she said that this option is only one of many and that the school board would have to discuss it with teachers.

“It’s very important the staff be involved in this decision-making,” she said.

She also cited Second Steps, an anti-violence and anti-bullying program, as an example of action the district is currently taking. Later, she said that the district is thinking about instituting a transition program for students re-entering the classroom after being involved in a bias incident, somewhat like drug and alcohol re-entry programs now in use at the high school.

After Pastel’s general statements, Eldred Harris, a representative from the organization Village at Ithaca, read an official statement. Village at Ithaca is a community group working to eliminate the academic divide keeping black and Latino students from achieving their full potential. He said that although the group was “very pleased” to hear Pastel’s announcement, they had some suggestions and criticisms.

In particular, they advocated that the school district not eliminate a staff position focusing on multicultural issues, one program that the district is considering cutting under the new budget.

Although the current events have largely revolved around racial issues, Pastel stressed the idea that the zero-tolerance policy extended to all discrimination.

“What we’re talking about is the broad breadth and depth of biases,” she said.

She also said that the actions at the high school are only a symptom of a larger systemic problem. She said that she sees two different school districts, one where some students are “reaffirmed on a daily basis” and another where students are uncomfortable and feel discriminated against.

“What we have to make sure to do is have one Ithaca school system,” she said. “I don’t want to just focus on the high school.”

Chuck Bartosch, the president of the Board of Education, agreed that the racist behavior was indicative of a larger problem, and mentioned the role of the community in shaping these actions. He also said the media affects people’s attitudes through the issues and events that it covers. “The media does have a strong role to play,” he said.

Both Bartosch and Pastel recommended the local media put effort into covering positive programs and events rather than exclusively focusing on problems.

Others criticized the working atmosphere of the school. Harris said that the school district needs to improve its climate and that he has heard reports from teachers in the school that “it’s not a friendly environment” to work in.

After questions from the media, Pastel opened the floor to limited comments from the audience. Yolanda Clarke, a parent of a student at Ithaca High School and an academic advisor in the College of Arts and Sciences, agreed that the district needed to improve the climate for students, staff and parents.

“I really don’t like the fact [that] in order to get attention at this school I have to say I work at Cornell and I am an assistant dean,” she said. She said she has seen signs of tension among teachers as well, and added, “There’s stuff that’s going on below the surface beyond these kids.”

Overall, the response at the meeting appeared positive, with the audience calmly posing questions and statements.

Barbara Bauer, another parent, thought that the zero-tolerance policy was a good step. However, she sees the resolution of this behavior as coming from the student body itself, who was generally “embarrassed and ashamed” about the incidents.

“They don’t want to be associated with that kind of thing,” she said.

Archived article by Shannon Brescher
Sun Senior Writer