Great Neck residents object to teaching on racism and ‘white fragility’

Great Neck residents object to teaching on racism and ‘white fragility’
Great Neck School District parents and stakeholders expressed their views about critical race theory after PowerPoint slides allegedly from a North High teacher's curriculum were circulated online. (Photo by Janelle Clausen)

Residents in the Great Neck school district have voiced objections to teaching about racism and “white fragility” that was reportedly part of an 11th-grade English class at North High School.

At a high-tension meeting of the Board of Education on Wednesday night, a handful of parents, students, teachers and residents addressed screenshots from a PowerPoint presentation allegedly featured in the class that circulated on social media recently. 

The slides were included in an article on the website for Parents Defending Education, a national grassroots organization that works to ensure schools do not promote “harmful agendas,” according to its site. The group said the slides were “steeped in the tenets of critical race theory,” and some residents who spoke at the meeting seemed to agree.

Under a slide discussing racism in America, a quote reads, “White people benefit from this system, intentionally or unintentionally, which makes us all (technically) racist, myself included.” The slide also mentions that the word “racist” was used “as an adjective to describe certain language, beliefs, and policies as opposed to racist as a noun to label a person.”

Racism throughout the nation, according to the slide, is also “no better today than it was 200 years ago.”

Another slide headlined “white fragility” claims “white people harbor significant fragility when discussing race” and said some manifestations include “defensiveness or anger, emotional withdrawal, guilt and tears.”

District Superintendent Teresa Prendergast said the district has been aware of the excerpts circulated through social media but said state law prohibits the district from commenting on personnel matters.

“The district is actively reviewing these materials and will work collaboratively with our teachers and administrators to ensure information is presented in a viewpoint-neutral matter that stimulates critical thinking and reasoning skills,” Prendergast said. “We remain committed to reviewing and addressing issues that may not align with our educational mission, while also providing support in a safe learning environment to all of our stakeholders.”

The teacher, whose name was not disclosed in the article or by members of the Board of Education, also included a slide asking students to agree to a pledge, calling on them to explore sensitive topics openly and honestly, view antiracism as a process to work toward and call out their own and others’ racist tendencies.

“There is a major difference between teaching critical thinking and promulgating political ideology that is not based in any historical value, but is only promoted to instill in our children hatred, the feeling that they’re not worthy, division, and have them believing, based on the color of their skin, that they are inherently racist,” one person said at the meeting.

“This overemotional indoctrination is going to create generations of emotionally unbalanced adults,” another said. “This collective blame that we want to instill in our children will only bring more hate.”

“An educator who pushes critical race theory singles out a single race and is also contributing to a systemic type of bullying,” one parent said. “Tax-funded public schools should be a place where everyone should feel empowered by being proud of who they are, not a place where they are minimized and belittled.”

Sahar Tartak, the president of North High’s Student Organization, said last year her advisers  demanded she sign off on a check from student government funds for a systemic racism presentation by ERASE Racism, a Long Island-based group aimed at promoting racial equality.

Tartak said she refused to sign the check on the basis she did not know the extent of the presentation student funds would be appropriated to. Her advisers, she said, threatened to revoke her position in student government, accused her of being racist and “compared the situation to me opposing a Holocaust presentation.” Tartak said her grandfather was a Holocaust survivor.

“This is only one instance of our school administration pushing partisan politics onto the school and placing the blame on its employees when they were the ones responsible,” Tartak said. “The most recent slideshow that you’ve all seen, likely, has been taught for years now. How can our administration not have known about this?”

Fellow North High student Matthew Mah, the co-secretary of the school’s Student Organization, said he is not opposed to educators informing students about the “dark aspects of American history” but is “against a crystalized version of CRT,” or critical race theory, that is presented.

“When teachers deviate from a role of teaching students on how to think and challenge one another and, instead, teach students what to think, that is when the accusations of propaganda gain credence,” Mah said. “A lesson that calls for a pledge is always a call for concern.”

Prendergast said the district’s English/language arts department is aligned with state standards with literature studies having “always included understanding of the historical, cultural and societal concepts of the materials presented in support of its analysis and interpretation.”

“I have the utmost confidence in our teachers and administrators and our entire school community as well as their ability to work through these issues together,” Prendergast said. “Our Board of Education, administration and teaching staff remain committed to our district’s high standards to academic excellence.”

According to an article from Education Week, critical race theory, introduced around 40 years ago, is an idea that “race is a social construct, and that racism is not merely the product of individual bias or prejudice, but also something embedded in legal systems and policies.”

New York State Board of Regents Chancellor Lester Young told Capital Tonight in June that the board’s efforts to promote and educate students on diversity in the classroom do not include the teaching of critical race theory in K-12 schools.

“Our policy, the New York State Board of Regents policy, on diversity, equity and inclusion is not an attempt to, in fact, teach critical race theory,” Young told Capital Tonight.  “Critical race theory is not our theory of action. Our theory of action is cultural responsiveness.”

“We are asking for information and have asked and have been assured that families will be brought in and have the opportunity to speak with educators,” board President Rebecca Sassouni said. “It will be learned how various matters have gotten into curricula and how they’re reviewed and it will be OK.”

Patti Crisafulli, a Social Studies teacher at North Middle School and a parent in the district, touted the importance of teaching students about resolution when it comes to various historical conflicts. She also said it is a disservice to students when only one perspective is being presented in any context and providing the highs and lows of history is imperative.

“We learn from the past together to help us all navigate the present together and for them to succeed in the future,” Crisafulli said. “Our children will not thrive in a complex world of millions of people if they only hear one voice or see one view. Learning how to think critically about multiple resources is essential to their growth.”

Also at the meeting, the issue of mask mandates was raised with passion by some residents who called for the district to provide studies and scientific data that show the reasons for children to wear masks in school.

One resident asked the board to provide numbers of how many children in Nassau County have died due to the coronavirus.

“Do you not believe in having data, or has the bigotry of low expectations subconsciously slipped into the decision making that has us immigrant parents, who wouldn’t understand the data, to specifically ask questions or ask those refusing to give you the data,” he said.

Orin Cohen, a North Middle School sixth-grader, spoke on the impact mask-wearing has had on the daily routine of school.

“On a normal day, pre-COVID, when I am getting ready to get on the bus to go to school, I’d be excited for a new day of learning, friends and possibilities of what will happen that day,” he said. “But today when I walk into that building, what I think is not happy, positive thoughts about new opportunities. It’s the dread about being trapped, like in a prison, knowing that I can’t get out.”

Prendergast explained that the district is obligated to follow state rules requiring masks. 

“The New York State Department of Health issued an emergency regulation directive on August 27, right before school opened, requiring public and private school students, faculty and staff to wear masks inside of school buildings,” she said.

“That is not a decision that an individual school district can make. We are a public school and we are obligated to follow New York state law with regards to mandates. As the superintendent of the Great Neck Public Schools, I will uphold the law and the mandates that are required by our school district and as long as that regulation remains in effect, we will ensure that all staff, students and visitors follow that mandate.”

After a speaker attempted to address the community during the public comment session of the meeting, Sassouni informed the speaker that the comments should only be addressed to the board. The speaker’s microphone was then shut off and Sassouni attempted to proceed with the rest of the public comment session when audience members became more disruptive.

Trustee Jeff Shi made a motion for a recess, with a quorum of the board agreeing to do so. Once the trustees returned, they continued with the remaining comments. Afterward, Sassouni informed the public that it is “very unusual for this board to ever have had a recess,” saying it is a “sad indicator” for the community.

“I’m proud of a community that can actually come out and have intelligent conversation and debate,” Sassouni said. “I think that it is actually a sign of health, democracy, and of Great Neck. What is not a sign of health is utter disrespect … I think that we should hold ourselves and each other to higher standards than some of those that were exhibited this evening which are going to cause me a great deal of despair about my leadership here.”

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