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Community Packs Tense But Orderly Lakeland School Board Meeting

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Lakeland Copper Beech Middle School seventh-grader Alex Ascanio received a standing ovation after he commented at last night’s Lakeland School Board meeting.

A standing-room-only crowd filled the Lakeland High School auditorium as police guarded the lobby and aisles and were on stage with trustees during the Board of Education’s tense but orderly meeting Thursday evening.

The tense atmosphere came one week after the Feb. 10 meeting had become disorderly when several individuals screamed racial epithets and Interim Superintendent of Schools Dr. Karen Gagliardi was escorted by police from the building. That forced the district to add security for Thursday’s meeting to ensure the safety of those in attendance.

Tensions have been mounting since last year when the district established a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) team, drawing the ire of a group of parents opposed to the program. Those parents have grown increasingly vocal at board meetings.

A large contingent of the audience was in solidarity with the district’s proposed DEI program, including the Lakeland Federation of Teachers and the Yorktown Democratic Committee. Although the mood was tense, there was also a sense of camaraderie and enthusiasm.

At the start of the meeting, Board President Adam Kaufman said comments made at the previous meeting were reprehensible.

“We welcome public comment and want to hear from those that disagree with us but with civility and decorum,” he said. “We have a larger police presence and if anyone yells out or is disruptive, they will be removed. If they fail to comply the police will be pressing no-trespassing charges.”

There were 34 people, including about six students, who signed up to speak Thursday evening. Miguel Feliciano, a Walter Panas High School senior and founder and president of the school’s Equity Club, asked how the community became so divided. Feliciano was joined by students from several social justice advocacy clubs who openly support the district’s proposed DEI program.

“We are prepared to join the DEI team and make our voices heard,” said Feliciano. “We are here to stand up for what’s right and stand up against hatred and bigotry.”

Since last spring the district has added members to the DEI team and its progress has slowed.

Michael Morey, a Panas graduate, lambasted the board for allowing people with extreme prejudices to be on the DEI team and for renaming the DEI program Equity for All.

“We won’t even use the words diversity and inclusion in this program and that says we are listening to voices we shouldn’t be listening to,” Morey said.

He said past actions by the board led to the disturbing outbursts at the previous meeting. He singled out Trustee Becky Burfeind who had previously stated that some voices were being excluded from the DEI process.

“She gave credence to the notion that all voices should be at the table, even the most extreme voices,” Morey said. “We heard those voices last week; they were loud and divisive and represent a fringe movement in this country of white grievance politics and they should not be at the table. For too long the board has let those voices slow-walk progress of DEI. You haven’t done the best job in leading this district.”

Many speakers commenting on the disturbing behavior on Feb. 10 were also critical of the board and its apparent inability to be in control of the meetings.

“As board trustees, I’m sorry, but your lack of leadership in regards to DEI and managing this from the onset, have allowed this type of behavior to fester,” said Lisa Piccirillo, a 24-year district resident and mother of three children. “You need to unequivocally denounce this behavior.”

“As a student, the incivility of adults acting in this way was disturbing and disconcerting for me and my peers,” added seventh-grader Alex Ascanio, who received a standing ovation. “From a middle schooler, the adults in our district must do better. Do better.”

Judy McLaughlin, team leader for the Lakeland chapter of Save Our Schools, a national organization that is critical of DEI programs and of critical race theory, said parents had the right to question their children’s constitutional rights and the changing curriculum without being slandered.

“DEI has so many good things but not all of it is good,” McLaughlin said. “The Black Lives Matter movement has been involved in Lakeland’s DEI (program) and this has caused many to believe only one viewpoint is valued and the diversity of thought has no seat.”

McLaughlin urged the audience to watch previous boards meetings to become fully informed.

There was a standing-room-only crowd at Lakeland High School for Thursday evening’s Board of Education meeting one week after racial epithets were used during a budget discussion that featured comments on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.

Michael Lillis, president of the Lakeland Federation of Teachers who led a contingent of teachers to the meeting, said he was troubled about the district’s future and referenced last week’s meeting.

“The past year a great deal of toxicity has been spewed into this room,” Lillis said. “There is a direct line between the behavior in this room and the behavior in our classrooms. We can no longer watch from the sidelines.”

Lillis asked for a moment of silence to show appreciation for board members, after which he said “Silence can communicate as much as any scream.”

Daks Armstrong, a guidance counselor at Yorktown High School, said last week’s board meeting was a wake-up call.

“Racism exists in our community in a big way,” he said “If you want to continue to brag about our amazing town and school district, we need to do this (DEI) work.”

Impassioned comments often brought applause and standing ovations. But some comments elicited boos and jeers from the crowd, including when Cortlandt resident Heather Conway repeatedly asked how the district was paying for illegal students and berated the board for complying with the state’s mask mandate for public schools.

Conway compared the board’s attitude to that of Nazi supporters during World War II who also said they were just doing their job.

“Your actions are just as complacent as they were,” she said.

Attending the meeting last night was Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-Yonkers) who would represent Yorktown if he wins re-election in the fall.

“I’m here to listen and learn about what’s going on in order to understand the community, the parents, teachers and students,” Bowman told The Examiner. “This is happening all over the country and is based on historic segregation writ large. It’s important to know about each other, about the ignorance and hatred.”

Also in attendance were state Sen. Peter Harckham (D-Lewisboro), whose district includes Lakeland, state Sen. Shelley Mayer (D-Yonkers), chair of the Senate’s Education Committee, Westchester County legislators Colin Smith and Vedat Gashi and Yorktown Supervisor Matt Slater.

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