PITTSFORD, NY – When students in the city of Pittsford, NY, an affluent suburb just outside Rochester, returned to schools this fall, something disturbing emerged: a video of a white student holding up a gun and making a racist threat.
âPeople are like, ‘Why are you carrying a gun? The boy said in the short clip, pulling out the gun. To kill black people, he replied, using a racial insult.
For some parents and students, the video has exposed what they say is a larger pattern of racist incidents in the largely white city, where local officials are now scrambling to address such concerns.
The Monroe County Sheriff’s Office said the teenager, who was suspended and did not return to school, was not in immediate danger, noting that the weapon was an air pistol and that the video was recorded months ago. But this assessment did little to allay the concerns of parents who say their children have suffered racial taunts and other incidents with little consequence to their bullies.
âThis is not an isolated incident,â said Tharaha Thavakumar, of Sri Lankan descent and mother of a 14-year-old freshman in the school district. âIt’s something that’s ingrained. And it’s not going to go away.
As the shock of the video continued to percolate, the city’s school district was rocked by a pair of new allegations, accusing the Pittsford students taunt black students at another high school, including make monkey noises and use a racial insult – during two football matches at the end of September.
The Pittsford District said an investigation found no evidence of such behavior, while officials at the rival high school – in neighboring Greece, NY – said their staff found the claims to be credible.
The suggestion that Pittsford could be at the center of yet another racist incident has sparked anguished reactions from principals and officials in the town of about 30,000 residents, where charming old houses sit on tall towers. lawns with white palisades.
Pittsford’s Main Street is home to 19th-century shops, lounges, and a town hall, and its two high schools – some of the state’s best academically – are surrounded by beautifully manicured sports grounds. Median household income is over $ 120,000, according to census figures.
Almost all of the adult population has a high school diploma or better, in a city with a total school system of nine schools and about 5,500 students.
In an interview, Michael Pero, the principal of Pittsford schools, pointed out that the school district faces the same forces as American society as a whole.
âI don’t think anyone wants racism attached to their organization, their community, their schools,â he said. “But I also don’t want to wrap this up and say racist acts don’t happen in Pittsford, because they do.” It is a national problem, it is something that we are all working on.
In early November, the school district announced the hiring of a “Equity and diversity coordinator”, with a far-reaching mandate that includes increasing its small number of non-white teachers and administrators, as well as program evaluation and support for ârestorative practicesâ in classrooms.
This follows a series of parent and student âlistening circlesâ organized by two groups dedicated to fostering emotional health in children and helping communities heal from racist incidents.
But for upset parents like Ms Thavakumar, such moves are far too soft to address more entrenched issues, including an almost complete lack of black teachers in the district. A 2016 survey by WXXI, a local public radio station, found only one of the approximately 500 teachers in the district were black.
District says recruitment for diversity has increased in recent years: As of this fall, it says the district has 13 teachers or administrators who identify as people of color – about 2.2% of the overall of âcertified personnelâ – and 53 employees in this category across the district.
Pittsford schools are part of the Urban-Suburban Program, a voluntary desegregation plan that takes Rochester City School District students to wealthier schools outside of the city limits.
One of these students, Jaylen Wims, a senior who lives in Rochester, said he and other black friends were regularly subjected to “some sort of suspicious or racist incident”. And while the gun video shocked him, it didn’t surprise him.
“The magnitude of it has made it an outlier, but in terms of something happening?” ” he said. “No.”
In 2016, a series of leaflets directing people to a white supremacist website were anonymously left on the residents’ aisles in Pittsford and a nearby town. These leaflets sparked strident denunciations from local officials, as well as anti-racism rallies and the formation of a group of concerned local residents – PittsForward – determined to “fight systemic and institutional racism”.
The following year, for the first time, Pittsford elected a black to city council, Kevin beckford, a Jamaican immigrant and former bank executive. Inspired to run by racist leaflets, he says he realized that “there are underlying issues that are really hidden here” due to concerns about the city’s reputation as a great place to live and educate children.
One of the first Democrats elected to city council after decades of Republican domination, Mr Beckford, 56, says a revealing moment in his first campaign came when he applied to be elected in 2016 and found that few residents would open their doors. He changed his strategy, allowing a white campaign volunteer to strike and introduce him.
âThey would be friendly with me,â he said. “But it was just this idea of ââopening the door to a black person.”
Much of the debate on racism has taken place online, with social media posts from some members of the community. who believed that the accusations against the students were false. Some Democrats have also expressed concerns about racism in the run-up to local elections.
One of those candidates was Kendra Evans, a Democrat who failed to oust William A. Smith Jr., a Republican, as city supervisor. Ms Evans, who is white and the mother of three adopted children – all of whom are people of color – says her children began “to experience micro and macro assaults in elementary school”.
This includes Grace, his 15-year-old daughter, who is Haitian and remembers being labeled racist vulgarity in fourth grade. And during a recent rally on the steps of the town hallGrace begs Mr. Smith and Mr. Pero to do more to deal with the problem.
“Racism is nothing new here,” she said, “and neither are we asking for help.”
Mr Smith said the recent incidents “are not at all representative of our town or its people,” noting a 2018 resolution he sponsored affirming Pittsford’s membership in “residents of a myriad of national, ethnic and religious origins “.
Mr. Smith, who has served as a city supervisor since 2014, also supported the creation of a voluntary âfairness review committeeâ, but in a video posted since last year on PittsForward’s Facebook page, Mr Smith has adopted a more skeptical tone.
“We live in this era of rigid cultural orthodoxy which frankly makes the medieval church seem liberal in comparison”, Mr. Smith says.
He continues, âHe has his own holy trinity: diversity, equity and inclusion. Which, from my perspective, diversity means that everyone is supposed to look different and they’re all supposed to think the same way; equity based on massive inequalities towards entire groups of people; and a concept of inclusion which means excommunication for those who do not recite the catechism syllable for syllable.
When asked why he made the statement, Mr Smith said he was trying to express “what I consider to be the important distinction between what I and most people consider to be diversity, the equity and inclusion and what an extreme small group of voices in our city mean by them.
As the city council and school district seek answers, the recent episodes have also garnered a vigorous response from students in the district, who have organized a walkout at the end of September to protest the school’s response to the incidents, organized by a group of students called Diversify Pittsford.
Ameera Duarte, the group’s founder, said the school district could take an important step by “listening to students of color and taking them seriously, then actually taking action on what they say they’re going to do.”
âThey have to put a lot of effort into showing us that they genuinely care about them and want to help,â said Ms Duarte, who is 16 and a junior at Pittsford Mendon High School.
State Senator Samra G. Brouk, a first-term Democrat who graduated from Pittsford Mendon in 2004, said reports of racist behavior were sadly familiar.
Senator Brouk, who is black, said she and her younger brothers – also former Pittsford students – suffered racial slurs while they were students there. âThe difference now is that our young people now have the language. They know there is support and they can talk more about their experiences.