SOMERS, N.Y. - In the spring, as protests against racial injustice ramped up across the nation and world in the wake of the George Floyd killing, several Somers High School graduates organized and held a “Solidarity Rally for Black Lives” at Reis Park.
Just prior to the peaceful June 4 event, schools Superintendent Dr. Raymond Blanch penned a letter to parents. Citing the pandemic’s closure of the district, he declared that it was hard to witness “the pain, suffering, and outrage experienced by so many, without being able to gather as a school community to share our own emotions.”
“These are times when teachers and students need each other most, to process unsettling images, to think through shocking injustices, and to find a way forward that promotes healing,” he wrote.
Following that letter, the school board indicated at a meeting in June that it would be working on an official statement.
It’s now nearly four months later and, vice president Heidi Cambareri mentioned at the board’s Oct. 13 workshop, some community stakeholders wonder just when that’s going to be released.
The question spurred a lively discussion about the precise language of the said statement.
Trustee Joseph Marra acknowledged at the workshop that “a decent amount of time” had passed since the board last publicly talked about making an official anti-racism statement.
But while some might think the board’s been dragging its feet, that couldn’t be further from the truth, he insisted.
“We have had discussions, but we just haven’t been able to agree on the language,” he explained.
Marra said that battling systemic racism is key to moving the nation toward justice and equality and while it’s important to support peaceful rallies and marches, no one should turn a blind eye when such events devolve into property damage and violence.
Marra explained that differences over wording appear to be the main “stumbling block” to finalizing a statement.
“In my opinion, we, as a school district and a governmental body, not only need to condemn the racist actions that are going on in our society, but also the actions that are basically destructive to our society,” he said. “If they happen to arise out of the same events, I feel we need to address them. By not addressing them, we are, in essence, condoning them or viewing them as collateral damage to a peaceful protest.”
“It’s not the same thing,” said Cambareri, disagreeing that trustees can’t talk about racism without addressing the issue of violence.
Board President Lindsay Portnoy chimed in, saying that the conversation was probably not one trustees needed to have right then and there. She suggested that perhaps Somers High School Principal Mark Bayer “could facilitate a ‘courageous conversation’ with us during a work session.”
Portnoy was referenced the book teachers have been reading, Glenn E. Singleton’s “Courageous Conversations About Race,” which, Bayer said, offers “practical how-tos” for broaching topics in ways that are “opening and enlightening rather than shutting and closing doors.”
Trustee MaryRose Joseph agreed that at 9 p.m. on a work night probably wasn’t the “best time” to have such a deep conversation “because we started it, but we’re going to end it too quickly, so it won’t have the grounding that it needs.”
Although Floyd’s death on May 25 in Minneapolis triggered the initial conversation by the board, the current dialogue has cast a much wider and deeper net, Joseph said.
Now, she said, “It’s [about] what’s happened for many years.”
“It’s a reckoning. It’s an awakening. It’s a great moment for our kids to hear about history and how to be kinder human beings,” Joseph said.
Furthermore, Cambareri insisted, the statement is a team effort and no one has been trying to impose their individual positions in its development.
Instead, she said, “It’s about what’s best for our district and our students, staff, community and global vision. That’s what we’ve got to figure out.”
In a nod to those who had commented during the workshop on Zoom, Bayer said, “If anything, you just demonstrated how difficult these conversations can be.”
The consensus: Whether aired in public or private, differences of opinion are to be expected.
“There are things we’re all trying to struggle with. The struggle is real and I think that’s OK,” Blanch said.