October 24, 2007

Racism Drives Local Debate

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Correction appended. See below.

Amid a storm of publicity and unfaltering community protest against a recent challenge to human rights by the Ithaca City School District, the ICSD Board of Education voted unanimously last night to allow investigation into a racially charged case that happened two years ago.
Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo ’08, co-president of Black Students United, celebrated the decision as a long-awaited victory after a difficult battle to convince the Board to allow the New York State Division of Human Rights (NYSDHR) to investigate the issue.
“I’m so excited … I think we really, really got to them,” she said.
The issue, sparked by an incident involving several white students allegedly verbally and physically abusing a 12-year-old black student on a school bus, became subject to much controversy in Ithaca when the Tompkins County Human Rights Commission declared that ICSD administrators failed to protect the victim from harassment, thereby violating state human rights laws.
Pursuant to this determination, the case went to the NYSDHR for further investigation, but last month, the school decided to block the process, appealing the measure on the grounds of confidentiality. School administrators said that such an investigation would violate the privacy rights of the white students subject to this probe and therefore, could not legally proceed.
After weeks of chaos following this decision — characterized by protest rallies, violent rumors and low school attendances — the Board met last night in a crowded auditorium to hear remarks from community activists, concerned parents and students from Ithaca High School, Cornell and Ithaca College. Passionate opponents to the Board’s appeal spoke on issues of racism, community and the alleged irresponsibility of school administrators in the matter.
Addressing the Board, Lumumba-Kasongo said, “I challenge you to start giving a damn about people that don’t look like you … here we are fighting the same fight, having the same discussion.”
Like Lumumba-Kasongo, many attendees were frustrated with the whole situation, saying that something must be done about this case and the issue of racism in general.
Diana Ozolins, teacher at the ICSD, said, “We have to come together to create something better. No more putting out fires; we have to make substantive change.”
Board members reacted positively to the crowd by thanking them for bringing their concerns and enthusiastic suggestions to the meeting. Many of the Board members that voted in favor of blocking the investigation spoke of the difficulties posed by this issue and admitted that a new decision was in order.
Speaking in favor of rescinding the Board’s previous vote, Thomas Frank ’81, Board president, said he had been wrong to support the appeal, emphasizing that life is a learning process and admitting mistakes is an integral part of this.
“It’s important that you learn, but it’s also important that you un-learn,” he said.
From here, where the case goes depends on the NYSDHR, but Lumumba-Kasongo said that people must not immediately forget about this issue now that this one hurdle has been overcome.
She said, “Its vital for the students to know that Ithaca College and Cornell students are here to support them.”
Correction appended: “Racism Drives Local Debate” states that Ithaca City School District administrators argued that an investigation by the New York State Division of Human Rights would violate the privacy rights of the white students subject to the probe and could not legally proceed. The administrators said that an investigation would violate the privacy rights of all students involved. The Sun regrets this error.