Racial conflict in the Ithaca City School District
By Emily McNeill
On the afternoon of Oct. 1, more than 80 community members, college students, parents and Ithaca High School students held a rally in front of the Ithaca City School District administration building. After about an hour of speeches and chanting, a few dozen marched inside to demand a meeting with Superintendent Judith Pastel. They were given no appointment but waited in Pastel’s outer office until she agreed to meet with them – outside. In the bright Indian summer sunlight, Pastel listened to concerns about the district’s response to a racially charged lawsuit and stories about racism at Ithaca High School. Then, say protestors, she interrupted an IHS student mid-sentence to say “thank you,” turned and walked back into the administration building. The police locked the door behind her.
On the surface, the protest was about a lawsuit that Amelia Kearney, an ICSD parent and Ithaca College student, brought against the school district in Jan. 2006. Kearney was suing the district under New York state human rights law, alleging that the district had failed to protect her daughter from continuous racial harassment on the bus to Dewitt Middle School. The district argued that the Human Rights Commission did not have jurisdiction over public school students and that a commission hearing would force the district to break federal privacy laws by disclosing student disciplinary records. On Sept. 25, the board of education voted to block a hearing while it waited for a decision on the district’s appeal.
But, as the last few weeks have shown, there was more to the protest than concerns about a lawsuit. That afternoon, and at the meetings and protests that would follow, students, teachers, parents and community members held to a common theme; Amelia and Epiphany Kearney’s experiences were just the latest symptom of a long-standing and deeply rooted problem in Ithaca’s schools.
A Cyclical Problem
As protestors were quick to point out, racial tension at the high school is nothing new. The Ithaca City School District is comprised of an often-volatile mix of the children of the urban and rural poor and the children of Cornell and Ithaca College faculty. Community members and district officials say that the most marginalized groups – minority and rural students – often clash, creating tensions with an unmistakable racial element. Both rural and minority students report unfair treatment from both teachers and other students. Meanwhile, the district is struggling to shrink the so-called achievement gap – the gross disparity between graduation rates and test scores depending on a student’s race or socio-economic status.
While the community has been engaged with issues of inequity in the district for decades, activism has become more organized and visible in recent years. Beginning in the summer of 1999, after a school year in which 23 minority staff members were fired or pushed out of the district, a group of community leaders calling themselves the “School Issues Group” lobbied the district to do more to hire and retain minority faculty and staff. Some of those leaders went on to help found the Village at Ithaca in the spring of 2002. The Village focuses on addressing inequity, both by advocating for changes in the district and providing services to minority and low-income students and staff. Over the past few years, the district and the Village have worked together more closely, and last fall they jointly released their first annual “Equity Report Card.”
Groups like the Village have been working consistently on equity issues and the district has had a Strategic Equity Plan since 2003, but the larger community tends to only pay attention to the issue sporadically. For decades, latent racial tensions have surfaced every few years to command the public’s attention. The last eruption occurred in the spring of 2004, when a highly publicized, racially charged fight at the high school initiated a new round of community discussions about racism and inequity in the district.
As had happened in the past, the district responded then with forums, new proposals and promises to make fighting racism a priority. Pastel announced that she was re-instating $115,000 into the budget for diversity programming and staff development. The high school also formed a new group called SPIRIT, or Student Problem Identification and Resolution of Issues Together. The group, which included students from a variety of backgrounds, met weekly to discuss ways to improve the climate at the high school.
A year later, some were feeling better about the situation. IHS had a new principal, Joe Wilson, who had come from a high school in Baltimore. He set about enforcing rules more strictly. “It was perceived by kids and their families that some people were treated differently because of race, socioeconomic standing and grades,” he said in an interview in the spring of 2005. The answer, he believed, was uniformly tough discipline.
But others were skeptical.
Sean Eversley-Bradwell, a member of the steering committee for the Village at Ithaca and an assistant professor of education at Ithaca College, said that the root causes hadn’t been addressed.
“The same thing happened a couple years ago; there will be an eruption and then things will calm down and there will be an eruption,” he said in an interview that spring. “And my fear is that we’re on the same path. We’ve sort of swept everything under the rug and three or four years from now we’ll be dealing with it again.”
When the school board met this year on Oct. 9, a week after the protest, tensions between the community and the district were high. Some students and community members were already feeling slighted by Pastel, who, in the Ithaca Journal, had accused the protestors of just trying to make a “ruckus.” At the board meeting, they again tried to make their case.
“Every year I’m here the racism and racial profiling gets worse,” said Patrick Booker, a junior at the high school who would become a leader of the student protests that followed. Booker spoke about wanting to do better than his family members, some of whom have been incarcerated. But he and his black classmates, he said, are “getting pushed away like we don’t belong here.”
Others expressed frustration that, after years of similar conversations, the district was doing nothing to deal with problems it had long ago identified. But, after an hour and a half of comments from an impassioned public, board members had little to say. The district had to defend itself, said president Thomas Frank, and it was continuing to look into problems of unequal treatment at the high school. When the board declined to vote on withdrawing the appeal, angry students and community members prevented it from moving onto other business. Frank adjourned the meeting early. He, Pastel and two other board members walked through the rain to their cars followed by protesters chanting “no justice, no peace.”
Countdown to Equality
Emboldened and angered by the events at the previous night’s meeting, a group of Ithaca High School students decided on Wed. Oct. 10 to walk out of their classes in protest. Wilson responded by putting the school into lock-down mode, keeping students in their classes. Eventually he met with about 100 protestors and promised that he would hold a forum within seven school days for them to air their grievances.
Thus began the “Countdown to Equality,” seven days of actions to raise awareness of the students’ demands and hold Wilson to his promise. A group of high school students, with support from community members and college students, planned that each day the students would wear a different color and hand out a different flyer explaining one of their concerns. Their complaints were both broad and specific: disproportionate suspension rates for black students, the lack of a bias reporting system, the low percentage of minority staff, a lack of support from the district and a general sense that they are judged based on their skin color.
For the first three days, things went largely according to plans, but students reported that tensions between black students and white students from rural areas were high. By day four, things were spiraling out of control. A rumor had started that the “countdown” was leading not to a forum but to an act of violence and that the posters depicted not a timer but the scope of a rifle. Despite having approved the posters initially, Wilson forbade students from handing them out. Those who persisted were disciplined. Wilson then sent a memo home to parents, confirming that there was a rumor about coming violence.
The next day, Wed. Oct. 17, more rumors were circulating throughout the high school, this time about a hit list including many of the minority students who were involved in the protests. Amid fears from students and parents about the possibility of violence, Wilson announced that all absences that Thursday and Friday would be excused.
At the same time, he was moving ahead with plans for a forum on Thursday. But instead of a single forum as the students had requested, the administration had planned two forums, and IHS students could choose to attend either or simply go to class. One forum would be headed by Leslie Myers, the district’s only African American administrator, and the other would be led by Mary Burtless, the principal of Enfield Elementary. Despite assertions from the administration to the contrary, this was widely seen as an attempt to divide the students between urban and rural.
Regardless of the administration’s intentions, the forums were seriously compromised by Wilson’s de-facto offer of a day off. On Thurs. Oct. 18 about half of the high school’s 1600 students were absent for at least half the day.
When the board of education met again on Oct. 23, nearly 200 community members were in attendance. Once again, the board listened to nearly two hours of comments from an angry and frustrated community.
“This is a story of colossal failure,” said one parent. “You folks have failed.”
But this time, the board had a response. One by one, board members thanked the public for their comments. Slowly, the skeptical crowd began to realize what was happening. The board was telling them it had made a mistake.
Thomas Frank admitted to the crowd that he doesn’t “get it” when it comes to racism. “I learned it here and at the last [board] meeting, and I should have learned it earlier,” he said. “I’m learning to unlearn what I learned.”
The motion to halt the appeal came to a vote, and it passed unanimously. As it had two weeks earlier, the meeting ended with community members on their feet. But this time they were cheering.
As people exited Kulp Auditorium at Ithaca High School into a windy and rainy night, there was a sense that conflict might have finally given way to some sort of progress.
Promises and Doubts
Once again, crisis at the high school has inspired new actions and promises from the district administration. Four years after it was proposed as part of the district’s Strategic Equity Plan, the district is forming an Equity Leadership Council made up of representatives from different community groups. Pastel also announced at the meeting Oct. 23 that the district would be reviewing safety procedures at the high school.
But despite the board’s change of heart in regards to the Kearney case and the administration’s assurances that equity remains a top priority, many community members are questioning their sincerity. Particularly they are wary of another round of meetings and forums. There is a long paper trail of reports and proposals, community members say. What’s needed now is leadership to implement what has already been developed.
At an Oct. 17 meeting at the Greater Ithaca Activities Center, students and community members expressed frustration about what was happening at the high school. They felt that rumors of violence had hijacked the students’ efforts at nonviolent activism. But they were also frustrated by a sense of deja vu – 11 years after Judith Pastel took office and more than four years after the district launched its Strategic Equity Plan, community members were having the same kinds of forums and tackling the same issues.
“I’m done having these meetings,” Bradwell told the approximately 90 people seated on folding chairs in an irregular circle around the room. “We know what’s wrong, and they know what’s wrong as well. So at some point in time, no more forums. Act. Do.”
Roberta Wallitt, a former teacher and the chair of the Village at Ithaca’s Systemic Solutions committee, expressed the same idea a week later, as she shuffled through folders of documents and newspaper clippings in her living room.
“We have hundreds of pages of recommendations,” she said. “We have had community meetings where pages of newsprint on the walls have been filled with everybody’s suggestions. It’s just been going on for years. It is so clear what needs to be done, and it’s not even that hard.”
The Equity Leadership Council, the invitations for which were sent out the week of Oct. 23, is just one example of ideas that had been gathering dust for years. Judith Pastel’s predecessor had produced a 14-point, 3-year action plan for the district, which was shelved when Pastel arrived, Wallitt said. Reports produced in 1998 and 2000 dealing with race and class have been forgotten as well. Another report written in 1997 by the former minority affairs officer at the high school included recommendations on bringing rural and urban students and families together. Despite the fact that rural-urban tensions were a major factor in the fight in 2004 and the events of the last month, Wallitt says virtually no one has read the report.
The interim Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction, Patrick Jensen, who supervises the Equity Plan said in an email that “the materials have been reviewed.”
One of the most glaring examples of ignored recommendations is the story of the district’s office of affirmative action. In the wake of the School Issues Group’s complaints in 1999, the district defended its decision to let go of 23 minority staff people, saying it had simply been enforcing certification requirements. Nevertheless, the board agreed to hold a forum and produce a report on minority hiring and retention. In Feb. 2000, the board came back with recommendations for attracting more minority teachers. To implement them, the district would need to add a position at the affirmative action office.
But the addition to the affirmative action office never came. When voters defeated the 2001 school budget, the board cut the extra affirmative action position. Within four years, they had eliminated the office altogether. In 2002, it downsized the office, removing the affirmative action officer from the superintendent’s cabinet and cutting the salary nearly in half. For more than a year, the position remained vacant, and, after being filled briefly, it was eliminated in 2004. That same year, the ICSD reduced the hours for the assistant principal for minority affairs at the high school. Aqeela Shakur, who held the position at the time, resigned and was never replaced.
According to last fall’s Equity Report Card, the percentage of minority teachers in the district has increased just 1 percent since 1997 to 6.2 percent. Minorities make up 28 percent of students in the district.
At a time when the district was supposed to be pursuing its equity goals, the elimination of the affirmative action office seemed to many to be in bad faith. Other actions and inactions on the part of the district have only exacerbated the sense that the district leadership is not fully committed to its plan. Jensen’s position, which oversees the Equity Plan, has been held by three different people over the past three years, including two interims. He said the district plans to hire a permanent administrator this summer.
Cal Walker, executive director of the Village at Ithaca, gave a sobering assessment in first Equity Report Card last year. He wrote: “As the district approaches the halfway point of its goal, the data included in this Equity Report Card suggests the education gap is still perilously close to where it was at the initial announcement, and still plagues a city whose primary industry, ironically enough, is education.”
A Turning Point?
The events of last month have given community members some reasons to hope. High school and college students were more involved in the recent protests than ever before, Wallitt says, and she was encouraged to hear new voices speaking out at the board meetings.
For the first time, rural parents are starting to organize and put pressure on the district as well. At the Oct. 23 board meeting, Dwight Scott of the newly formed Concerned Parents of Caroline said that his group wants a zero tolerance policy for harassment at the high school and better security. They also want to see barriers between rural and urban parents and students broken down. Amelia Kearney echoed Scott’s sentiments later that night. “Parents from Caroline and Enfield have the same concerns as parents downtown,” she said.
Mike Amadeo, an Ithaca College sophomore who was involved in the recent protests, thinks pressure from community members will make a difference.
“I really think that the school board and the administration are very threatened,” he said. “Not physically or anything like that, but ideologically. They know the people they’re supposed to be protecting are standing up to them. They know they haven’t been acting in the best interests of the students, which is their primary function, and they know that we’re calling them out on it.”
But Wallitt says the outcome of all this activity will depend on the community’s vigilance over the next weeks and months.
“Unfortunately what happens is – and I’ve been doing this a long time – we get people on the [school] board, things start to happen and then we breathe a sigh of relief and go back to whatever we’re doing,” she said. “And we can’t do that.”
Already, community involvement seems to be dying down. The weekly meetings at the Greater Ithaca Activities Center have come to a halt – at least temporarily – since Oct. 23. After weeks of intense activity – which at times had community members spending hours a day at the high school – a lull seemed inevitable, but Wallitt worries that the Kearney case may have sapped activists’ energy before they could achieve significant structural changes.
“There is so much work to be done,” she said. “If we didn’t have to keep responding to these crisis situations, then we could put our energy into doing the real work that will make the school system something that we can all be proud of.”
Since the Oct. 23 board meeting, the ICSD and the Ithaca community have crossed into the next stage of this continuing cycle – the post-crisis reprieve. In the past – whether due to poor leadership, community complacency or some combination of the two – these periods of calm have never lasted. The evidence from the past decade suggests that, in a few years, conflict will resurface. In the meantime, community members and district officials say they want to see real change – to stop responding to crises and rehashing old arguments. It remains unclear, however, who or what will disrupt a pattern that has, to date, been more resilient than its opponents.
Emily McNeill is a senior journalism major who is holding a forum on the ICSD’s proposal to launch an exploratory committee on the prospect of holding a forum on a report on racism. Contact her at emcneil1[at]ithaca.edu.