YORKTOWN, N.Y. – The Yorktown Central School District proudly calls itself the home of ESTEAM. For those unfamiliar with the acronym, that means taking an empathy-based approach to teaching science, technology, engineering, arts and math.
Though that approach has laid the foundation for the success of many students and young professionals, some alumni say the district still has work to do when it comes to the E in ESTEAM.
Much like learning a language or an instrument, “Conversations about race and racial injustice are best introduced at a young age to foster empathy,” said Fatima Chaudhry, a 2015 alum and member of the Yorktown for Racial Justice Alumni and Students Coalition, which includes dozens of Yorktown students from the classes of 2012 to 2023.
At a virtual meeting of the school board on Monday, July 27, Chaudhry and other coalition members took turns sharing stories of discrimination and microaggressions they faced as students in Yorktown to illustrate why change is necessary.
The coalition, formed following the death of George Floyd, created an online petition that has so far been signed by more than 5,500 people. It picked up steam after a polarizing graduation speech by Dr. George Yancopoulos, co-founder of Regeneron, and calls on the district to revise and expand its anti-racism curriculum, diversify its teaching and administrative faculty, and mandate diversity training for staff. It urges district officials to be “upstanders” against racism and to form a committee to “spearhead racial justice education and ensure racial equity” in Yorktown schools.
“Our common thread here is understanding that, through our experiences and the experiences of our peers, there is much work to be done in Yorktown regarding anti-racism and racial equity,” Chaudhry said.
In third grade, for example, Chaudhry said she was fasting for Ramadan when she was pressured to eat by cafeteria workers. The school then called home to make sure she was being fed properly.
Sarah Shapiro, a 2019 alum, recalled when a teacher and a fellow student were discussing a YouTuber who had been suspended for making anti-Semitic comments. When the student asked why the punishment was so severe, the teacher allegedly responded, “Because Jews own the media.” Upon seeing that the comment upset Shapiro, the teacher doubled down on the remark and later taunted Shapiro for being too “sensitive.”
“What may have hurt the most from this encounter was not the fact that my educator was spewing hate, but that he was teaching it to other students in the room,” Shapiro said.
A complaint filed by Shapiro against the teacher was dismissed by the district, she said. Lizzie Crumley, a 2013 alum, said the student senate class was “by far the worst” when it came to these types of incidents.
“The teachers always gave us a prompt and then split us up by political party and then they let us duke it out,” Crumley said. “And it always, always ended up with the less privileged students practically begging for the white affluent kids to hear their story and have some empathy.”
Crumley then read comments made by current and former Yorktown students in response to the coalition’s petition.
“You should have the freedom to be racist. First Amendment rights,” one student wrote with an “LOL.” Comments like these, Crumley said, show “Yorktown has missed the mark.”
“This is an exact contradiction to the empathy that Yorktown is trying to instill in its students,” she said. “These are the same students who will grow up to hold positions in politics, law, medicine, business and so much more.”
Yorktown’s curriculum, the students said, should be expanded to include lessons on redlining, the prison industrial complex, food insecurity, health disparities, education inequalities and more.
“The way we learned it, it seemed like Martin Luther King came and racism was solved,” said Maya Rau-Murthy, a 2013 alum.
Rau-Murthy recalled a social studies teacher at Yorktown telling a class about his experience with prostitutes in Latin America and the “promiscuity” of Hispanic culture. Rau-Murthy, a Yorktown native, said she was often asked by fellow students and teachers, “Where are you really from?”
“This propagated the general sentiment that I was less American because I wasn’t white,” Rau-Murthy said.
Despite these incidents, many former students described their experiences at Yorktown overall as positive.
“Yorktown does earn its National District of Character award, per my experience,” said former student Taizhier Green. “I’ve met some amazing staff members and teachers at Yorktown who really care about the future of the students. However, there is a disconnect between Yorktown and what’s going on in the real world.”
In his experience, Green said, Yorktown has “more an issue of xenophobia than anything else.” In a submitted statement, a former resident supported Green’s view, saying neighbors often expressed “disgust at immigrant groups ‘taking over’ Yorktown…The dominant message and general tone was that the Yorktown way of life was idyllic and needed to be protected from those coming in from other areas with ideas that challenge the community’s beliefs.”
Students at schools like Yorktown’s will likely hold positions of power one day, Green said, making implementation of an anti-racism curriculum all the more important.
“It’s important for future leaders in real estate and banking to understand the systemic inequities so they can fix them,” Green said. “Students in Yorktown need to know what’s happening in the real world. They don’t need to be sugarcoated or coddled or hidden away from real life. Because then when they eventually go into these positions, these industries, they’ll make the same decisions that have led to these inequities that we have today.”
Green also pushed back against the notion of these issues being political in nature.
“Anti-racism isn’t a left or right or political thing. It’s a human rights issue. It’s an American issue,” Green said.
Chaudhry commended the district on taking initial steps but asked officials to go further. For example, the school district has launched a task force made up of district employees. Chaudhry said she would like to see community members appointed to the task force, saying the coalition members “care deeply” about the town and want to see its school district be a leader on these issues.
“We’re hoping that this petition is just a first step for Yorktown becoming the north star for diversity and inclusion within the nation,” Chaudhry said.
Dr. Ron Hattar, superintendent of Yorktown schools, assured the students that their message was not lost on him.
“I appreciate you sharing your experiences, your pain, and the reality that you experienced,” Hattar said.
He promised the students that there was “more to come” on this front.
“I’m raising my own children here. I live in this community, and we should live up to the promise of our community and of our district,” Hattar said. “Please know that I have heard you. I have heard you. Our task force chairs have heard you. And I hope you get the sense that we’re serious about the work. Silence is not an option. Silence is not acceptable. And we will show our voice through our actions.”
Lisa Rolle, a school board trustee, said she was pleased to hear that the “majority of our administration and our staff is doing a great job.”
“But the other thing I heard was there are some who are not doing a great job and we need to get to the bottom of that,” Rolle said. “The students who have spoken today, the parents who have also spoken today, have shown us that we haven’t gone far enough.”
Trustee Mike Magnani said schools can improve when it comes to teaching issues of race, justice and equality.
“My own personal experience with U.S. history ended at around 1965, also,” Magnani said. “So, it looks like we have a lot of things to look at as far as how we’re teaching more current events…We’ve got the right people in place to make things happen, and I support it 100 percent.”
Daks Armstrong, a guidance counselor and member of the district’s task force, said he was moved by the speakers.
“It’s definitely going to be front and center with the work that we’re doing, and I do hear what you guys are saying,” Armstrong said. “I really do believe…we can be leaders for the country in this work.
“Revolution and great change, like the civil rights movement, it takes a village,” Armstrong added. “If we do it as a community, it will happen.”