By Joseph D’Andrea
Public comment regarding recent leadership changes, concerns about how community input has been received and Sewanhaka High School’s name change dominated the school’s Board of Education meeting on Tuesday.
Elmont Memorial High School principal Kevin Dougherty’s unexpected sabbatical led to a student walkout on the first day of 2022-’23 school year, and it was reported by Newsday in April that he will be receiving $400,000 in a settlement following his absence.
Parents and other residents have been voicing their resentment towards the decision for months and continued to ask for more details about the decision Tuesday evening.
“At the beginning of the school year, myself and many other Elmont parents came to the board and asked why,” said attendee Rachelle Lewis. “We asked: why was our principal taken away from us? We asked for transparency, we asked for communication. As far as I remember, my recollection is this board responded to us that it was a private matter, personnel that could not be shared. We express, we protest and we were angered by this decision for you to take our principal away from us.”
Lewis emphasized the community’s determination to learn more about the situation, saying, “[In October], we got a two-line response about our principal who was unjustly removed. Again, we came and asked why. We asked the questions, and we got no answers, but the same thing that we got in September: it was a Personnel Action.”
As a result of the removal, a search for a new principal was underway. Parents were given a say in the decision-making process, which included an interview committee, but some still have concerns about the process itself.
“As a representative of the parents, we don’t have faith in the process,” said Lynette Battle, PTSA president of Elmont Memorial High School. “The individuals that came before [the committee to be interviewed] were lacking. [The community is] not happy with what was presented to us, and if a decision is made out of those individuals that were picked, there’s going to be a problem.”
Battle expressed that diversity in candidates is what should be focused on, saying, “We feel that a wider net needs to be cast, and no one based on what has happened to our students… Go back to the drawing board and do not rush to judgment to bring someone before us. The parents that were on that committee are qualified individuals who are educators themselves, and understand what Elmont needs.”
Further criticisms came from Elmont parent Shamika Thalon, who feels that the process is “flawed” and that the perspectives of those like herself were not considered enough, were responded to by Superintendent James Grossane.
“Mr. Dougherty and I reviewed the list and together we selected parents,” Grossane said. “While I may not have known your viewpoint, or I may not know you, I knew that. I consulted with Mr. Dougherty, we sat, we selected people. I couldn’t have had a committee of 45. It’s not possible. We had a committee of 12 parents, we sat and we selected. If you were insulted by that, I apologize for that. It was not meant to be insulting.”
In addition to these comments, the subject of Sewanhaka’s “Indians” name change was further clarified by the board, both in the reasoning behind the action and the process that will follow in this adjustment.
As explained by Grossane, the state Education Department encourages districts to contextualize certain artifacts and if possible, “locate them to areas conducive to conversations that [provide more] contextualization, regarding the impact of such teammates, mascots or logos among indigenous peoples on the history and cultures of such peoples and nations.”
Grossane continued: “We need to change the name of our team and we need to change the logos and representations… There are one or two artifacts that are in our main lobby here at Sewanhaka high school that will be relocated to the library where they can be discussed and what the references were to them.”
Changes to the appearance of the school’s “Indian” name and logo on certain team uniforms, band uniforms, fields, scoreboards and parts of the building, were all mentioned by the superintendent, who stated that these updates will be made once the new mascot is decided upon.
“Therefore, we will establish a committee to discuss the change in mascot and logo for the Sewanhaka Indians,” Grossane said. “A letter soliciting volunteers for the committee will be sent out. And the timeline for the transition will be determined by the committee. I know I’ve had some initial conversations with the building administration and we hope that we will be able to move forward with the new mascot hopefully sometime later in the fall. We do hope to have that finished.”
There was a 5-1 approval of the resolution for the superintendent of schools to create a plan for the elimination of the name “Indians” in the Sewanhaka Central High School District, as well as other prohibitions surrounding the usage of the name.
“I disagree with the process,” said Patricia Rudd, the only dissenting board member. “It angers me that the State Education Department can hold school district aid as hostage, and also threaten firing officials in the School District and Board of Education members if they don’t comply in an expedited way.”
She continued: “I also disagree with tamping down mandates without offsetting the costs. This is going to cost us hundreds of thousands of dollars of tax money. I disagree with the process, not necessarily the change, but the process. We are a community that can agree to have a committee and decide what is good for us. And to hold hostage $72 million plus is wrong.”
Elmont resident Tiffany Capers expressed her alignment with the board’s decision while disagreeing with some of Rudd’s points.
“I want to commend the boy on finally moving forward on the mascot,” she said.
“I don’t think that it should be seen as much of a financial burden as the right thing to do, and we’ve heard from the Native American people that it’s discriminatory and hurtful to them.”
The board adjourned into executive session following the meeting to discuss the processes relating to mascot bylaws and legal principles. Their next regular board meeting is scheduled for June 20.