Ithaca Blog

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Racial Unrest at Ithaca Schools Draws National Attention

Ithaca got some unwanted publicity in the New York Times today, for the racial unrest in our public schools.

Unwanted, but not unwarranted.

The article first mentions some of Ithaca's enduring positive features: its "cultural diversity," renowned namesake college and Ivy League university, designation in 1997 by Utne Reader as "America's Most Enlightened Town," innovative "local currency intended to support city merchants," and jokey popular reputation as "10 Square Miles Surrounded by Reality."

But, the article relates, harsh realities of racial tension are encroaching in the city's schools.

And it seems that enlightenment has eluded the school leadership.

At the center of the unrest are incidents of harassment of a female African-American student, who was physically and verbally attacked by white male students on her school bus. The incidents were numerous and took place over a protracted span of time. The school took five months to investigate the incidents - which ultimately lead to criminal charges.

Upset with the district's slowness to act, the girls' mother filed a complaint with the Tompkins County Human Rights Commission. The commission found the district in violation of human rights laws.

The school district responded with a claim of legal exemption from state human rights laws due to its status as a municipal, rather than private, entity. It claimed that federal privacy laws shielded its students, and precluded its compliance with the human rights laws.

Critics see a pattern of negligence and insensitivity by the district leadership. City Council member Michelle Berry is among those who have called for the resignation of Dr. Judith Pastel, the school district superintendent.

There have been demonstrations by students and parents. Last week, many students stayed home both as a protest, and in response to rumors of threatened violence against students of color.

Tonight, the school board is scheduled to meet and discuss these issues. The hope among aggrieved students and parents, and their sympathizers, is that the board will drop the claims of exemption from human rights law compliance, as a first step to re-establishing trust and security in Ithaca's schools.

Stephen Burke
for Ithaca Blog

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