October 11, 2007

Public Confronts Board of Education on Racism

Print More

On Tuesday night, as many Cornellians returned to campus, a group of students joined Ithaca residents and Ithaca College students at the Ithaca City School District’s Board of Education Meeting to speak up about the issues of racism facing the town.
Around 100 people attended the meeting, held at 7 p.m. at Ithaca High School’s Kulp Auditorium, to take advantage of the opportunity to speak out during the “Receiving and Hearing of Delegations” by the public that follows the opening of the Board’s meetings.
Almost all of the approximately 30 members of the public who spoke came to address the growing issue of racism in Ithaca. In particular, the speakers focused on the ongoing case of Amelia Kearney, whose daughter was allegedly racially harassed at Ithaca’s DeWitt Middle School during the 2005-2006 school year.
Despite Kearney’s repeated complaints to various administrators, she claims the ICSD did not do all it could have done to protect and assist her daughter.
To ensure that incidents like this will not recur in the future, Kearney filed a suit against the ICSD with the Tompkins Country Human Rights Commission.
Two weeks ago, however, the ICSD filed a restraining order to delay the case, challenging the jurisdiction of the Human Rights Commission over public education. If the New York Supreme Court rules in favor of the ICSD it will mean that public school students all over New York State are no longer protected under Human Rights Law.
While the ICSD claims it has delayed the case to protect the identities of the accused children, Kearney and others maintain that measures can be taken to ensure the children’s privacy and that the ICSD is merely hesitant to go to court.
The 30 speakers included Ithaca parents and teachers, members of activist groups, students from Cornell, Ithaca College and Ithaca High School, and Ithaca residents.
Many condemned the middle school for the unsafe and unencouraging atmosphere of the ICSD for minority students. Enongo A. Lumumba-Kasongo ’08, senior co-president of Black Students United and a graduate of Ithaca High School, as well as current Ithaca High School students, cited the disproportionate amount of suspensions given to black students.
Community members also criticized the ICSD for delaying the court case and putting the ICSD’s own interests ahead of its students’. Speakers urged the ICSD to continue allowing students to be protected under Human Rights Law and urged the Board to do more to battle racism within its schools.
One resident with two young children compared the situation to the racially-charged trial of six black students in Jena, La. She said, “It’s shocking that we can’t do any better in Ithaca.”
Some speakers also called for ICSD Superintendent Judith Pastel to resign.
Last to speak was Kearney, who thanked the audience for its continued support. She also admonished the Board for delaying the case, arguing that the children’s identities could be protected.
Once the speakers had finished, School Board President Tom Frank thanked the speakers for “bringing their passions and concerns” to the meeting. He also reiterated the ICSD’s “serious obligation” to protect the privacy rights of its students under federal law.
Next, Board member Seth Peacock tried to make a motion to halt the ICSD’s delay of the Kearney case. Another Board member informed him that to bring about an unexpected motion, the Board would first have to vote to suspend the Robert’s Rules of Order, a set of rules on how to conduct meetings under Parliamentary Procedure that the Board follows by law.
The Board voted and decided not to suspend the Rules of Order and instead decided to bring up the matter of the Kearney case at the next Board meeting Oct. 23.
The reason they gave for the delay was that one member was out of town tending to a sick relative. One Board member told the audience, “[The vote] deserves a full Board meeting and a full Board vote.”
Upon hearing the Board’s decision, many crowd members began clapping and chanting “Vote! Vote! Vote!” at the Board.
When asked later if it is typical to delay a vote until all members are present, Board Member Beth Kunz said, “No, it is not normal.”
She added, “I think we need to revisit [this issue].”
Stel Whitehead, a parent whose children who went through the Ithaca school system, was disappointed with the actions of the Board. She said, “They’re deciding what is advantageous to the Board instead of the students.”
Upon returning to session after a brief break, the Board further angered the crowd by restarting the meeting with a discussion of the ICSD budget and making no mention of the vote.
When crowd members questioned the Board’s abandonment of the issue, Frank said, “It is our obligation to continue the meeting … The public delegation period is over. We follow an agenda. We have to do this this way.”
At this point, several members of the audience climbed up onto the stage on which the Board members were seated, saying, “We are prepared to stay on the stage for as long as it takes.”
Various people began shouting “Shame on you” to the Board members, telling them, “You’re substituting procedures for principle,” and asking them, “Why do you choose to follow the rules now, when you never followed them in the past?”
Several audience members began shouting repeatedly, “No justice – No peace!”
Since the Board members could no longer continue the meeting under the uproar, they decided to adjourn the meeting.
Joyce Muchan ’96, vice chair of the Human Rights Commission and the assistant director of student development at Cornell’s Public Service Center, was also disappointed with the Board, saying that by postponing the vote, they were “postponing justice.” She was, however, satisfied to see the Board adjourn, calling it a “victory.”