By Samuel Rowland
Tensions exploded last Thursday in the Lakeland School District over whether the Board of Education should accept a petition calling for an emergency meeting to address perceived pro-Critical Race Theory bias in the district.
“I have a speech I wrote but after hearing what’s gone on so far, I only have two comments to make,” said parent Kat Symington at the July 22 board meeting. “What is going on in this district? I don’t remember all this divisiveness, all this hostility, all this outward aggression…and it’s on both sides.”
Community member Joseph Perlman said the purpose of an emergency Town Hall-style meeting would be to review the board’s decision to introduce the optional state Culturally Responsive-Sustaining framework that recommends curriculum changes and to examine the formation of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) team to manage the initiative.
It would also address assertions that accuse the entire Lakeland community of systemic racism which defames the community, he said. Furthermore, it would ensure the DEI team represents the will of the electorate by replacing the two candidates in last spring’s Lakeland Board of Education election who collected the fewest votes.
The members of the DEI team were appointed by the board based on experience and credentials, officials have said.
The Board of Education has said that they have not decided whether to implement the Culturally Responsive-Sustaining framework.
Several speakers that supported calls for the emergency meeting are associated with the Lakeland Chapter of Save Our Schools for Westchester Children. Others were wearing local chapter t-shirts with the slogan “Education, not Indoctrination.” Before the meeting, one woman was selling the t-shirts outside for $20.
Many of the Save Our School speakers argued the petition is a legitimate answer to the district’s Demand Letter that had been sent to the board last year calling for more active, anti-racist activities and policies to be implemented.
Community members Maureen Schulman said the emergency Town Hall petition is more legitimate because close to 1,300 signatures were collected from people who normally vote in Lakeland elections.
During the meeting, speakers representing each side of the issue heckled residents they opposed. Board members were also yelled at for allowing speakers to continue past their allotted time and for cutting microphones. Microphones were shut off when DEI supporter Joe Ascanio and Save Our Schools member Judy McLaughlin were speaking.
McLaughlin was the parent who had originally introduced the emergency Town Hall petition to the board on July 8, with 550 signatures at the time.
Each side tried to use the time reserved for discussion on the district’s School Safety Plan to offer their comments on the swelling controversy.
Jenny Sunshine, a parent of an LBGTQ child, was interrupted at one point by Superintendent of Schools Dr. Brendan Lyons for speaking off-topic.
“No child can learn unless they feel absolutely safe in school,” Sunshine said. “Children need educational surroundings where they feel accepted and part of the group, which is why the Diversity Equity and Inclusion initiatives are so important because if every child can be included and accepted by students, teachers and faculty, then they will be able to learn.”
“I’m very afraid we soon will have our SRO officers taken away from us,” McLaughlin responded during the meeting. “Having the (Culturally Responsive-Sustaining) framework will affect the safety of our school. It is being pushed by people that are not for police officers.”
When the non-agenda item public comment period began, the rowdiness continued with some petition supporters calling for Lyons’ resignation. As the meeting wore on, speakers on both sides began to express disgust and exhaustion.
“This is not how civil adults on both sides should act,” said Marcel Delgado. “Just imagine, if this is tonight’s behavior here, what goes on in your home? I challenge you all to go to church because we all need Jesus.”
Speakers from both sides acknowledged confusion over what DEI and the Culturally-Responsive-Sustaining framework entailed and how the district might implement it.
“I want my kids taught accurate history. I don’t want them to find out about historical events, like the Tulsa race riots, as I did, from a TV show about superheroes,” said parent Chuck Monsento. “I don’t want (my kids) to blame any particular race for the horrific damages caused by…Jim Crow, redlining and segregation. The only people responsible are those who created those laws and knowingly benefited from them.”
Ilene Caizzio, who has mixed emotions about DEI, described going to brunch with a Lakeland community member who strongly supports Critical Race Theory.
“So we proposed, why not have a cultural day, a day where the community could get together and spend time together and actually meet each other,” Caizzio said. “I think that if we ate and actually spent time together, we’d recognize that we do have more in common than we don’t.”