November 19, 2007

District Faces New Charges of Racism

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“Ithaca is supposedly ‘10 square miles surrounded by reality,’ but right now reality is right up against our faces,” said Nathan Shinagawa ’05, a Tompkins County legislator, Friday afternoon at the first of two press conferences held in Ithaca to address new charges of racial discrimination within the Ithaca City School District.
The charges were brought about by Bryce Houseal, a freshman at Ithaca High School, and his mother Keisha Hicks, a graduate student at Cornell. Houseal claims that at school Nov. 8, a white student directed a racial epithet at him. When he reported the incident to an assistant principal, he says, nothing was done.
The next day, the white student repeated the epithet; Houseal reported it to the assistant principal for the second time, and once again, he claims, nothing was done. When the student called Houseal the epithet for the third time, Houseal confronted him and the students got into a fight. Houseal was suspended for five days and alleges that the white student received no punishment, a claim that Superintendent Judith Pastel denies. Pastel agrees, however, that when police came to question him, neither they nor the administration read Houseal his Miranda rights or notified his mother.
The incident came shortly after Houseal heard rumors from several students that his name was the 10th on a hit list created as a result of recent racial tensions at IHS. Hicks and school officials agree that the only notification she received of the hit list came from the school psychologist whom Houseal consulted after fearing for his life. Hicks called this response “quite inadequate.”
Although Houseal’s suspension was revoked because the school failed to follow protocol and notify his mother of the problem within 24 hours, Hicks has kept her son out of school because he has been “traumatized” by the recent events in which “the administration . . . allowed others to verbally harass” her son.
Indeed, a psychiatrist Houseal visited diagnosed the teenager with post-traumatic stress disorder and recommended that he not return to school. Hicks is in the process of making alternate arrangements with the school district, and in the meantime, Houseal has met once with a tutor. Hicks also acknowledged that she has hired an attorney.
The first press conference was called by Hicks and Houseal in conjunction with Activists Committed To Interrupting Oppression Now and the Race Liberation Alliance to address what ACTION member Marcia Fort called, “inequalities and harassment in the community.”
Angela Brown, a mother of a son who attends Ithaca High School, said that her son “was affected in the same exact manner” last year after he received a 20-day suspension for fighting a student who received no punishment after hurling racial slurs.
Brown said her son’s “downward attitude” toward school following the incident led him to be transferred to an out-of-state high school.
Fort emphasized that the issue is not purely racial, saying, “This isn’t against the rural whites in the school because they face the same treatment from the administration of the school district.”
She stressed that the school district needs policies and procedures that are fair to all students, who deserve “an education free from intimidation and bias.”
To accomplish this goal, many at the press conference hoped for a turnover in the ICSD administration. Shinagawa said, “We need to demand a change . . . a change in leadership.”
Fort announced that she would be passing around a petition criticizing ICSD’s “climate of fear [which involves] the inability to create a safe learning environment for all students.”
The petition also declares “no confidence” in the school’s administration, and calls for Pastel to resign.
Fort said she hoped that the ICSD would be able to “start over and become a role model” for other schools facing similar issues.
Amelia Kearney, who is currently involved in a case against the ICSD for the alleged bias it showed her daughter by not responding appropriately when her daughter was racially harassed, said, “This is not surprising. I really think it’s disgusting that things are continuing the way they are in the district, causing all these children anxiety . . .. I hope for the best.”
Later that afternoon, Mayor Carolyn Peterson and Pastel held their own press conference to “have a discussion with the community” about “important issues.”
Pastel said, “Any incident is a setback . . . all kids have the right to feel safe,” before acknowledging that students are called racial slurs “more than most adults in the school are aware of.”
She also said that the ICSD “is making changes within the school system” to “resolve the issues facing our community, and New York State and the country.”
When asked if she was going to resign, Pastel said she planned to stay in office, yet refused to estimate what her approval rating might be in the community.
Fort stressed the importance of what is going on in the ICSD to all members of the Ithaca community, saying, “Just because an incident doesn’t happen directly to us, it does not mean that it does not impact all of us.”
Hicks admitted that she originally considered staying at Cornell to pursue her Ph.D. Now, however, she plans on leaving as soon as she receives her masters degree, saying, “I won’t subject my son to five more years [here].”
Hicks said she hopes for “some sort of administrative pressure from Cornell,” which she feels would cause IHS to respond.
She added, “If Cornell hopes to recruit, hire and retain faculty, staff and scholars of color, they must support them.”