Clarkstown Community Debates Eighth Grade Presentation at District Board Meeting

A presentation intended to “raise racial awareness” among middle school age students has spiraled into a heated argument over when and how current racial tensions should be addressed in public schools.

“No Place for Hate”, a series of presentations created to foster “inclusion” for marginalized communities, including non-binary people and people of color, ran into trouble when addressing the issue of racial discrimination and the Black Lives Matter organization. The presentation, organized by eighth graders for the benefit of sixth grader Felix Festa students, was originally scheduled for earlier in the year, but later postponed pending further review from teachers and school administrators. When word reached the community about the planned presentation, some parents took to social media to protest the assembly.

“The reason so many people have become so irate that this has happened is that there was no notification and no request for consent from the parents,” said Pete Bradley, a local activist who was the first of many community parents to speak out against the presentation during a board meeting last Thursday. “The thing that’s so appalling to so many people is that eighth graders would be teaching a very hostile, very controversial subject to sixth graders in a glossy highlighted way that’s completely against everything that had gone in 2020,” said Bradley, who claimed to be in possession of a copy of the presentation. “It’s a complex issue and should not be in junior high period.”

Other, less restrained opponents of the “No Place for Hate” lecture, called the program a form of indoctrination and vehemently anti-police. One concerned parent stated they, “don’t want any political ideologies taught in middle school.”

The eighth grade students responsible for the presentation disagreed.

“The No Place for Hate Presentations are in no way against any race or police officers,” said Andrew James, one of the authors of the slide show. James emphasized that the presentation “contained only facts” and was in no way intended as a condemnation of the police, as some on social media (and even in that very audience had complained). He highlighted that the presentation was solely aimed at encouraging racial equality among the student body.

Multiple community activists spoke in favor of the lecture. A representative from the Rockland Historical Society warned against the danger of omitting or refusing to educate children on the full context of their history and current events, stating “children are not stupid, they need to understand the truth.”

One local parent passionately stressed the need to educate children on the realities of their society.

“My son has been called the N word,” said Linda Dunbar, a Clarkstown South parent who was nearly in tears during her comment. “He has been asked for permission to use that word, and that is from children at his school that live in this community. I’m going to assume that some of those children have parents and that those parents might be in this room at this moment.”

Dunbar felt that the dialogue surrounding the “No Place for Hate” Presentation had been misconstrued and forced into a “binary” argument. “No one ever said that police lives don’t matter, no one said that but somehow if you say that black lives matter or lives of color matter somehow the conversation becomes about things that no one even said.”

Dr. Martin D. Cox, the Superintendent of the Clarkstown School District apologized for the misinformation swirling around the presentation and stated that controversy began when the decision was made to establish the program as “an approved teacher lead lesson.”

“This was a misstep on my part, and I apologize for not being more thorough and thoughtful about a teacher lead lesson and such a difficult emotionally charged topic.”

Dr. Cox stressed that the presentation should be viewed as student work and stated that he would be cooperating with town authorities to review the content of the presentation before approving it.

“Looking ahead, I embrace the opportunity to converse next week with supervisor George Hoehemann and acting Chief Wanamaker as we discussed this particular topic, engage in dialogue and also determine some ways we can enhance our partnership on behalf of students and the district.”