Hastings principals: Racist, sexist, homophobic student behavior affecting ability to teach
This article was updated to report that Hastings-on-Hudson officials say they have many programs and efforts to address diversity, equity and inclusion, including $25,000 spent annually on its Race Matters Committee.
Middle school students in Hastings-on-Hudson have called their Black peers "monkeys," shared antisemitic memes, touched other students' genitals, and commented favorably about the Holocaust and the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
And there's plenty more.
Some students are behaving so badly that other students don't feel safe − and it's affecting the school's ability to teach, according to a memo sent to staff at Farragut Middle School by the school's principal, Jennifer Spirelli, and assistant principal, Kamillah Dawkins.
The memo, sent Monday, said staff would meet Wednesday to discuss the situation. It also said the school would have to share "concerns and expectations" with school district families. Moving forward, the memo said, the district would need to review how incidents are reported and the district's code of conduct.
The memo was posted in a closed Facebook group Tuesday and shared with The Journal News/lohud.
"Any amount of behavior such as this is too much," Hastings Superintendent William McKersie said in interview Wednesday afternoon. "We're being open and direct about it here in Hastings. The only way we're going to get after students struggling with these behaviors is if we're overt about it, clear about it."
McKersie and Spirelli both said the social-emotional impact of the pandemic on students and a variety of other factors were driving the bad behavior. Middle-school students are generally 11 to 13 years old, meaning most would have been between 8 and 10 between 2020 and 2022.
"It's a socialization problem. It's an educational problem. It's a philosophy problem. It's an internet problem. It's a, you know, political problem," Spirelli said. "I think it's all encompassing."
As students left the middle school at the end of the day Wednesday, four or five parents handed them red and blue ribbons, meant to show support for students who have been harassed and faced discrimination.
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In their memo, the principals listed specific student behaviors and comments they were concerned about:
A student saying they wanted to rape someone
The use of the N-word
A racial slur written on a bathroom wall
Use of the word "retard"
Sharing antisemitic memes and supporting murder at the Auschwitz concentration camp
Nick-naming girls after sexual acts
Provoking a student with a disability to cause him to fight
The memo said some students have reported that adults at the school ignore these comments and that nothing is being done to stop the hateful behaviors. Some students reported not feeling safe.
"This affects our ability to teach our students," the memo said, noting state guidelines on culturally responsive education include "creating learning environments that are welcoming and affirming." The student behaviors listed make that difficult, the memo said.
"We don't want to live in the past," the memo said, "but rather we want to move forward and take action on how to change this."
Community calls for action
Nanesha Nuñez has been frustrated by the school administration's response to her family's concerns over the bullying her younger brother, a student at Farragut Middle School, has endured.
"Although I was deeply saddened, I was not surprised," Nuñez, a graduate of the Hastings district and a former teacher and school board member there, said of the incidents outlined in the memo.
She said her brother was recently punched in the face and called a monkey. Her family is Black and Latino. Her brother has also told her he frequently hears the n-word used in the hallways at school.
"I'm glad that it's now getting attention from the larger community," Nuñez said.
Saydi Landon, a 7th-grader at the middle school, said she didn't appreciate the concerning student behavior because she's friends with people from different cultures and some who are part of the LGBTQ community. She tied a ribbon to a pole after school.
"I feel like it's very offensive," she said. "And maybe it's not towards me but it's towards my friends, so I feel very sympathetic for them."
Incident was 'extreme and horrific'
The principals' memo mentioned an instance where students took a video of a student with a disability and shared it with the school community.
In an email to the school community after the incident last week, McKersie explained that a student with a disability was in a bathroom stall and other children encouraged him to read a slur aloud while they took video. The students edited out their voices encouraging their classmate to read the slur louder and shared the video on social media.
Spirelli said officials were already concerned about student behavior. "And then that incident happened, which is obviously extreme and horrific and terrible on so many levels," she said.
Asked about the memo saying students reported that some adults ignore harmful comments at school, Spirelli said it was important to include that point so staff understand some students may think that's the case even when staff don't hear comments.
"It's our job to change that narrative and let students know that we support them and we want them to feel safe in our classrooms," Spirelli said.
Wednesday's after-school meeting with staff was intended to be an opportunity to think of creative solutions for dealing with student behavior, Spirelli said.
"We're coming together, we're brainstorming," Spirelli said − as opposed to continuing a cycle of teachers referring students to administrators for discipline.
McKersie said the district dedicates around $25,000 a year to its Race Matters Committee, a faculty committee, but spends at least $250,000 annually on programs, staff and training to address diversity, equity and inclusion. The middle school still offers a class that tackles topics like race, racism and social justice. Spirelli also said the district is introducing or enhancing initiatives to improve the school culture, such as meeting with marginalized students and developing student leadership.
McKersie said the middle school's culture was still healthy and academically oriented, but there were serious concerns about the uptick in bad behavior. "We can carry multiple truths here, right?" he said.
As of 2021-22, Farragut Middle School had 514 students, 72% of whom were white, according to state data. Only 2% of students came from households classified as economically disadvantaged.
Other communities have also seen a rise in unruly student behavior, including on social media.
Concerns from parents about students' racist behavior have played out publicly in Carmel school district after threatening videos circulated on TikTok. Parents questioned why the district didn't provide families with more details of what was in the videos and why the Putnam County Sheriff's Department didn't press charges.
Contact Diana Dombrowski at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @domdomdiana.
This article originally appeared on Rockland/Westchester Journal News: Principals of Hastings NY school see racist, sexist student behavior