SHRUB OAK, N.Y. - An event called The Peaceful March Down Main Street led hundreds of residents dressed in black down East Main Street from the ACME shopping plaza to the Lakeland Administration Building in Shrub Oak on Tuesday, June 16.

The event was organized by Lakeland alumni.

Along the route, marchers held signs and chanted through face masks, “No justice, no peace” and “Say his name.” Once at the administration building, they settled in to hear speakers share their experiences with racism and inequality.

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Organizer and Lakeland alum Alexia Libretti, who just graduated from Siena College with a biology degree and aspires to work in health care for positive change, said the event was organized because the district had not offered a response to the Black Lives Matter movement.

“This all started because a lot of alumni, we’re disheartened about the response our school and district had about everything going on in the world—all the protests and Black Lives Matter,” Libretti said. “A group of us got together and said, ‘We need to do something about this,’ so I think it’s great that it has come to fruition like this.”

At the administration building, alumni, teachers, community members and leaders spoke about their experiences in the district with racism.

“As a white woman in a predominantly white community, I feel that it is so important to use my privilege to benefit those around me,” Libretti said. “I want to showcase Black voices as well as people of color in our community. It is not enough for you and I to not be racist; we need to learn to become anti-racist. This community, me included, can always be better. We need to continue to educate ourselves and each other and do the research and readings that our education system failed to show us. The whitewashed history we learned is not the history of America and it is up to us to find the truth and not to burden our Black friends by asking them to help. We can become better by listening, truly hearing them and being empathetic toward the hardships we will never understand.”

Lakeland parent and Yorktown High School counselor Daks Armstrong commended the young people who organized and participated in the event.

“People your age think about the future. You think about what’s going to be, what could be, what should be and you start to think about how you’re going to improve it,” Armstrong said. “This protest, this march today, is part of that future. What you do here today informs you about what you will do tomorrow. But if you get up off the asphalt and you go home and you get on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, TikTok, whatever else you guys do, that is not going to bring you any closer to the ideals that you are forming within your brains right here on this asphalt. This is a starting point, it’s not the end result. I feel encouraged and I feel good at what I see here, but I’m old enough to know what concerns me is what I don’t see here, or better yet, who I don’t see here. Who I don’t see here is all I need to know and it should tell you, as well. You don’t see some of your peers. You don’t see some of your parents. You don’t see some of the community leaders, and those are the ones we need to talk to.”
Lakeland alum Tammy Tesker called on the reform of society.

“We can’t just reform and defund police and change curriculums and pretend that things are going to be OK. We need to reform social work and medical fields entirely,” Tesker said. “Doctors should never decide who needs better treatment and social workers should never decide what cases are more important based on the color of someone’s skin. We need prison reform because there are hundreds if not thousands of people in the prison system for minor offenses solely because of the color of their skin. On top of that, Black people are serving longer prison sentences than white people for the exact same crime. We need to end the war on drugs, crime and poverty.”

She went on to speak about reform in the schools.

“If any part of my speech infuriates you, then that’s good, I’m doing my job. You should be mad at my words because that’s how I feel and that’s how all of us should feel. That’s how Black Indigenous people of color have felt for hundreds of years. No matter what your ethnicity, you have the right to share your voice with this movement. We need people of all cultures to recognize and speak up about racism being a problem,” Tesker said. “Our schools need to make sure there are real consequences for discriminatory words or actions. To this day, is it not unheard of that white boys are using the N-word as an insult and a joke. It is not unheard of out there that there are racist teachers failing students. There are racist teachers who are convincing and manipulating students into thinking and feeling a certain way. The schools are constantly preaching about peer pressure with drugs and alcohol, but they refuse to realize that teachers are peers, too, and racism is just as important a disease as alcoholism and drug addiction. In addition, it has come to my attention this morning that I’ve only interacted with two Black teachers in our school system in the last seven years I studied in the Lakeland School District. How are we supposed to be changing the curriculum without acknowledging that? Lakeland needs to be hiring more Black people if they are in fact planning on bringing diversity in what we learn.”

Lakeland’s 2015 valedictorian Akshay Ramaswamy, who now lives in San Francisco, recorded a message which played over speakers at the event.  

“I didn’t think I had the need to speak until I noticed the response of the Lakeland administration in the last few weeks on both the Black Lives Matter movement as well as the atrocities that affected our nation,” Ramaswamy said. “The first thing that really stood out to me was how hard it was to find any messaging on the Black Lives Matter movement or any of the things that have occurred in the last few weeks on the Lakeland website. If you look right now, the headline you’re going to find is that there’s the 2020-2021 budget and trustee vote, there’s some updates on COVID and there’s something about a technology support forum. I think there’s something fundamentally wrong about our approach. I think that there needs to be some addressing on a fundamental level about some of these issues.”

He went on to speak about a Facebook post regarding the experiences of young people of color in Lakeland schools and insensitive comments made by teachers.

“Rather than engaging in this post, the moderators just shut it down and silenced the voices of people who are trying to take action,” Ramaswamy said. “I believe Lakeland has to do a number of things, but at a core level, we can’t not have this conversation.” 

Panas alum Hairiya Maiyaki, who is studying psychology at NYU and is on the premed track, said that when she moved to the Lakeland School District when she was 5 years old, her mother sat her down and explained to her she would be treated differently because of the color of her skin.

“The fact that my mother has to instill this idea in me at such a young age makes me angry,” Maiyaki said. “I want to live in a world without fear of being treated badly because of my blackness. I want to grow up and raise kids in a world where I don’t have to worry about them or myself being killed because of hate and ignorance. Enough is enough. It shouldn’t have taken the murders of people like Breonna Taylor and George Floyd for us to care about racism. It is not a problem that is removed from us all. Their deaths weren’t so-called ‘wake-up calls.’ Black people have been screaming for centuries for this all to stop but people ignored it. So let’s all make a vow to care about injustice and take action the first time people ask for it, locally and globally. We shouldn’t wait till things get this bad.”

Lakeland alum Brittany Alexander called on the district and the community to begin reform.
“If we truly want to remedy the institutional and structural racism that has been built on top of hundreds of years of neglect of Black people, we can’t just trust blindly in empty promises and prayers to bridge the gap between injustice and resolutions. We need to start within our own communities and redesign our educational system to reflect the people who are learning it,” Alexander said.

She called on those in attendance to vote and call and email government officials and members of the school board.

“Even once the hype dies down, people will still be Black and schools will still perpetuate hate without us putting on pressure, so don’t let up,” Alexander said.

Robert Mayes, a Lakeland Board of Education member, former criminal prosecutor for the Westchester District Attorney’s Office and 1998 Walter Panas alum, spoke about the lack of response from the district and responded to previous comments.

“The Minneapolis police officer’s brutal murder of George Floyd have sparked a wave of protests that have affected communities all over the world. These protests have forced all of us to confront, and some of us to recognize for the very first time, the uncomfortable reality that systemic racism permeates throughout our public and private institutions,” Mayes said. “Personally, I’ve had to come to terms with the fact, once again, that racism does exist in the school community that I serve. The message that comes from this current administration, to me, says, ‘I hear you but I’m not really listening.’ We need to do more. This district needs to be internally reflective, just like countless public and private institutions have done recently. We need to take a good, hard look at ourselves and examine and admit our mistakes. We need to come to terms with the fact that our good faith efforts to create an inclusive environment have been woefully insufficient to counteract the systemic racism that permeates throughout society.”

Superintendent Dr. George Stone, who will serve his last day as Lakeland’s schools chief on Tuesday, June 30, responded to Yorktown News following the event.

“Lakeland, along with every organization, can do much more to promote equity for all and we will continue to work hard to do so. I am also very proud of what we have stood for over this past decade, and what we have accomplished,” Stone wrote. “We set up a strong framework for equity with our mission, vision and core beliefs. We have done equity training with staff, we have implemented programs to help minority students and we continue to explore new ideas as they are proposed. I am also very proud of the accomplishments of many of our alumni who spoke and hope that in some small way their education in Lakeland helped them achieve their goals.”

Dr. Brendan Lyons, who will take over as Lakeland superintendent on Wednesday, July 1, said that though he hasn’t heard specifics, he would like to make sure all Lakeland students feel welcome in the district.

“Until I get there and can actually speak to people and really hear their concerns and understand if we’re talking about specific acts or are we are talking about more of a culture, I don’t really have the information to speak intelligently about it,” Lyons said. “Ultimately, we want kids and families to feel good about attending Lakeland and feel safe. When I take over in July, certainly it’s a priority to make sure kids and families are heard and we address concerns that are brought up.”