A Pleasantville village trustee revealed last week that there were two recent incidents of anti-Asian hate in the village and called on school officials to make sure they are equipped to address the issue.
Trustee David Vinjamuri alerted the Pleasantville Board of Education, his Village Board colleagues and the Pleasantville Police Department in an Oct. 4 letter.
He said one of the incidents he saw was posted on a private Facebook page by an Asian-American woman who recently moved to the village. On Oct. 2, she was walking with her three-and-a-half-year-old child on Bedford Road and passed a group of eight middle school-aged boys where “one of the boys spoke fake-Chinese words in a mocking tone, and other boys laughed.”
A second incident was shared with Vinjamuri by Rev. Susan Chupungco, pastor at the United Methodist Church, who told him of an Asian-American student walking in the halls at Pleasantville High School during last year’s spring semester who was racially harassed and told to “stop being Asian.”
Neither incident was reported to the Pleasantville Police Department.
“I would ask that the School Board find a way to acknowledge this incident and ensure that our students have the tools to understand the rights and humanity of people who may not look like them and that their parents know that this is unacceptable behavior,” Vinjamuri, an Asian American, stated regarding the Oct. 2 incident.
Pleasantville Superintendent of Schools Mary Fox-Alter quickly posted a response on the district’s website condemning the incident and “any and all incidents of hate speech.” She said although the boys’ identity was unknown, the practice in the district would be to apply the code of conduct.
“It’s also important to partner with families to make sure the messages are the same at home,” Fox-Alter said.
Fox-Alter emphasized how the district has long established a network of teachers and professionals who are available to students needing to confidentially report incidents of racial bias.
“We’ve hired social-emotional student counselors who speak with students privately and support them,” she said, adding that the youth officer from the Pleasantville Police Department is readily accessible.
Because it wasn’t reported to law enforcement, Chief Erik Grutzner said he learned of both incidents from Vinjamuri’s letter. Grutzner expressed confidence in the current youth officer and how that officer regularly connects with students not only on campus but at special meetings and in the community.
“Kids seek out our youth officer to share information; many times, those communications are initiated by students,” Grutzner said.
The department encourages anyone who has witnessed any type of racial harassment to report it.
“It’s in everyone’s best interest to do so; it gives us the opportunity to take action,” the chief said.
In addition to contacting the police, Mayor Peter Scherer also encouraged anyone with knowledge of a hate incident to contact the Westchester Human Rights Commission.
Vinjamuri said he believes the threats are taken seriously by the district and village but not acted upon properly, which was the impetus for his letter. He encouraged both entities to create a communications process when incidents occur, which helps build trust and allows for people to walk the streets safely.
“We don’t let people know,” said Vinjamuri, a candidate for county legislator. “It’s important when something happens we let folks know about an incident, give the facts and follow up.”
The Pleasantville Board of Education has been working since February to launch a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) committee. Its goal will be to have an ongoing dialogue about racial diversity in the school and the community.
“People can’t learn and excel if they don’t feel comfortable and it’s our job to make everybody feel accepted,” said Board President Shane McGaffey. “It’s our intent to create a good atmosphere where students can do their best to learn and really grow.”
Efforts to introduce recommendations from DEI committees have been polarizing, as many are uncomfortable with openly discussing racial biases. Chupungco, a Pleasantville resident, said she is told confidentially of many stories concerning racial bias in the community. Open dialogues about verbal harassment and shunning incidents often make people feel vulnerable, Chupungco said.
“These incidents happen and there’s outrage that it could happen here,” she said. “That is the white fragility response.”
Chupungco said the feedback is that government and educational leaders have failed to create an environment that is safe for everyone to have those discussions. “They are not getting this right,” Chupungco continued. “Receiving feedback is better than responding defensively and it’s the work that requires everyone to be vulnerable. We don’t like to do the work but we have to do it. I want to help this community learn how to discuss issues of race and inequality effectively.”
Chupungco has suggested the community read “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism” by Robin DiAngelo to better understand the dynamics of addressing racial differences.
“When racial tensions rise, Caucasian people read and discuss but do not take effective action,” she said. “More than read ‘White Fragility’, we need to put into practice what the text tells us.”
Westchester County Human Rights Commission Executive Director Tejash Sanchala noted that an uptick in Anti-Asian hate crimes started with the pandemic. Sanchala pointed to the Stop AAPI Hate website, which cited more than 9,000 incidents nationwide in that same time period, an average of about 18 a day.
Last Friday Westchester County Executive George Latimer signed the Anti-Discriminatory Harassment Bill into law that expands protections to victims of hate incidents.
Attending last week’s signing was David Imamura, co-chair of Westchester’s Asian-American Advisory Board. Imamura said the challenge has been to convince the Asian-American community to report incidents when they occur. According to Imamura, many groups who are victimized demonstrate a reluctance to do so.
“I’ve had family members that were assaulted, and it would never cross their mind to have an interaction with government,” he said. “Hopefully, with this law there is a remedy. You should come forward.”