October 2, 2007

Ithaca School District Accused of Racism

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Local residents and students gathered yesterday at the Ithaca City School District’s offices to rally against what they see as tolerance of racism by the district.
The most publicized accusation of racism came from Ithaca resident Amelia Kearney, whose daughter reported she was physically and emotionally abused by her classmates two years ago at the district’s DeWitt Middle School.
According to Kearney, a group of white students repeatedly called her daughter racial slurs, punched her and threatened her life. Both Kearney and her daughter are black. The name of Kearney’s daughter cannot be publicized because she is a minor.
When Kearney went to administrators such as Judith Pastel, superintendent of ICSD for help, Kearney said, “They either ignored me or made it seem as if they were on top of things when they really weren’t because it went on for months.”
In the midst of the harassment, Kearney pulled her daughter out of school because “they could no longer ensure her safety.”
Since Kearney willingly pulled her daughter out of school, the ICSD re­fused to send her daughter a tutor.
Kearney is currently in­volved in a court case against the ICSD for what she claims is racism because they did not act “timely and effectively” to aid her daughter. She hopes that the ICSD will be found guilty and that adequate changes will be made to the curriculum and staff to reflect the school system’s racial composition. Ad­ditionally, Kearney is seeking monetary compensation for the mental anguish the harassment caused her daughter.
Because the case is not criminal, Kearney brought it to the Tompkins County Human Rights Commission. Once they investigated and determined that there was probable cause of racism, they passed the case on to the New York State Divi­sion of Hu­man Rights, which concurred with the Commi­ssion’s determination.
Last week, the ICSD angered many people when they were granted a temporary restraining order to delay the case, which was scheduled to begin yesterday, by the New York Supreme Court, Appellate Division Third Judicial Department.The ICSD alleges that the Human Rights Commission (HRC) should not have jurisdiction over public education.
According to a press release written by Joyce Muchan ’96, if the courts agree that the HRC has no jurisdiction over public schools, it will affect students of every race, religion, gender and socio-economic class in New York State because they “will be denied their day in court.” Muchan serves as vice chair of Human Rights Commission and is also the assistant director of student development at Cornell’s Public Service Center.
Kearney, however, believes that the ICSD is delaying the case because “they don’t want embarrassment.”
On Oct. 5, the court will decide whether the case will proceed.
The rally was held, according to Kearney, “to show the school district that the community doesn’t accept the path they’ve taken.”
Jhakeem Haltom, a member of the Race Liberal Alliance that helped organize the event along with several other groups, said his group participated in order to “get people to see that this kind of thing is happening all the time. It is not an isolated event.”
The rally began with a mix of Ithaca residents and students from Cornell and Ithaca College walking around the building’s courtyard, holding up signs that read statements such as: Our tax $ for our children, not lawyers; ICSD reacts out of fear rather than dignity; Children learn by example. What are you teaching them?
Alexa Weaver, the mother of a student in the Ithaca School district, said she attended the rally to create “more awareness for the other parents … Racism is a serious problem in Ithaca even though we pretend it only happens down south.”
After rallying for roughly a half hour, several members of the community addressed the crowd.
Enongo A. Lumumba-Kasongo ’08, senior co-president of Black Students United said that as a graduate of Ithaca High School she was particularly upset about the allegations of racism. She asked the crowd, “If the educational institution isn’t supporting black students, where will they be accepted? . . . How will they be able to go out into society and become contributing members?”
Eventually the demonstrators entered the building because, as one man yelled, “We need to walk in, since [the administrators] are not walking out to talk to us.”
The demonstrators chanted and clapped before heading into Pastel’s office.
As the protesters made their way through the halls of the building, several ICSD staff members tried to ignore the loud chanting of the rally-goers.
When asked what she thought of all the protesters, Tammy Podufalski, secretary of human resources, said she had no comment.
Pastel’s secretary Doreen Bowles said that Pastel was at lunch, and she refused to comment further when people asked to speak with the superintendent later on.
Someone from the school district’s office eventually called the police and told the people at the rally that they could be arrested if they remained inside the building. However, Ithaca Police Department Sergeant Joan Russell said the police were called “not to take sides, but to keep the peace” and no arrests were made.
Darin Lamar Jones ’10 remained inside the building and said he might have stayed long enough to get arrested, but he “wouldn’t have known until the time came.”
He added that he stayed inside despite the threats because he was “trying to effect change.”
Pastel finally returned from her alleged lunch break a few hours after the protesters arrived and answered questions from people at the rally for only 15 minutes before turning and leaving abruptly.
During this session, several current Ithaca High School students cited examples of suspension discrepancies between white and black students that highlighted the alleged racism that exists between black students and their peers, as well as between black students and administrators.
One black freshman noted that she was suspended for three months last year after a fight with a white student who only received a few days of in-school suspension. Although suspended students are supposed to meet with a tutor, her tutor barely met with her and she is currently repeating her freshman year.
Pastel acknowledged that racism is an issue throughout the Ithaca City School system and said that the most effect ways of combating it are “through education.”
When people at the rally, however, asked her about the Kearney case she said that the Board of Education made the decision to postpone the case and she could speak no further about the matter.
As audience members began asking her additional questions, Pastel suddenly walked back into the building.
After she entered, police guarded the doors and refused to let members of the crowd back into the building. In protest, they began chanting, “Pastel must go!”
Kearney said she was “disappointed that [Pastel] still can’t answer questions directly and honestly.”
She added, however, that she “was happy that all those people were out there to show their support, and glad that the teenagers came out from school to voice their concerns.”