January 31, 2023
Ithaca, NY | 24°F


Protesters rally at district offices in school discrimination case

About 80 people from community and campus groups marched into the administrative offices of the Ithaca City School District today, shouting for the superintendent to resign and demanding an explanation for the way the district has handled a case of alleged racial harassment against a student.

Doreen Bowles, assistant to Superintendent Judith Pastel, responds to protesters and media inside the superintendent’s office today. Aaron Munzer/The Ithacan

The rally began at noon with a march and several speakers outside the district offices. After about an hour, protesters moved indoors and occupied the office of Superintendent Judith Pastel, and chanted, “Come out Judy, come out Judy.”

When the crowd learned Pastel was on her lunch break, the chants turned into “Step down Judy, step down Judy.”

Assistant Superintendent for Business Services Paul Mintz asked protesters standing in Pastel’s office and the hallway to leave, but he was largely ignored.

The Ithaca Police Department was called to the scene around 1:00 p.m. Inside Pastel’s office, high school and Ithaca College students and members of community activist groups asked the superintendent’s assistant, Doreen Bowles, for an appointment, while police conferred with administrators behind closed doors.

Liz Maroney, a resident of Ithaca who was at the rally, told the police their presence in the district office was unnecessary.

“We don’t need you police here,” she said. “We need you on the school buses with all the little children,” she said.

“We’d like to be,” said an Ithaca Police officer standing in the hall.

The rally was held to demand that the district change the way it is handling the case of Kearney vs. Ithaca City School District. In the case, Amelia Kearney, an Ithaca College student, alleges that her 14-year-old daughter Epiphany was repeatedly spit at on the school bus, hit and threatened with violence and racial epithets during the 2005-2006 school year at Dewitt Middle School.

Kearney alleges that the district did not do enough to protect her child and did not allow her to receive an education. She’s seeking compensation for emotional damage and wants the district to admit that it did not do all it could to protect her daughter.

“The [district] has admitted that yes, [incidents] did occur,” Kearney said. “What the question is is were they timely and effective [in responding]. I want her to be compensated for her mental anguish. She’s been traumatized by this.”

Pastel has said the district has been widely criticized for getting an injunction to postpone the case’s first hearing until Oct. 5, which would give the district time to allow the Third Department of New York’s Appellate Division to reconsider if the New York State Division of Human Rights (DHR) has jurisdiction in this case.

The school district believes that because of the open hearings in the division’s open hearing process, the district will have to break federal student privacy laws and show video and audio of other students besides Kearney’s daughter in order to defend itself.

If the district’s argument prevails and sets a legal precedent that the Human Rights Division does not have jurisdiction over high school students, parents challenging cases of discrimination in high schools across New York State would not be able to be represented by the DHR and would have to seek alternate legal methods. Shawn Martel-Moore, director of the Tompkins County Human Rights Commission (HRC), a local arm of the DHR, said this would make it much harder for parents to seek claims against school districts in discrimination cases.

Pastel announced around 2 p.m. that she would speak with protesters, who had agreed to leave the offices as long as Pastel would meet with them. When she arrived outside, she told the crowd that she was there to listen.

Several high school students addressed the superintendent, demanding to know why, they said, white students received lesser punishments for incidents in which both white and black students were equally guilty.

High school students ask Superitnendent Judith Pastel questions at the rally today. Aaron Munzer/The Ithacan

“You need to teach us, instead of disciplining us,” said an Ithaca High School student who asked that her name not be used. “When we’re suspended for 45 days, we don’t learn.”

Other people asked Pastel why the district was requesting an injunction to prevent the case from being heard.

Pastel responded, saying she believed the Tompkins County HRC, a local organization affiliated with the DHR, should not be representing discrimination cases for high school students.

“I don’t believe the Human Rights Commission is the correct forum for the complaint,” she said.

After about 10 minutes of questions, Pastel said, “Thank you all very much,” and retreated into the district offices to shouts of “No, come back,” and then, “Pastel must go.” The Ithaca Police Department locked the doors behind her.

Bailey Johnson, an Ithaca College sophomore present at the rally, said he thought the superintendent was responsible for the legal maneuverings and should step down because of her poor handling of the situation.

“I think [Pastel] should apologize and resign,” Johnson said. “First she should get rid of this injunction and the whole legal process and let [Epiphany] have her day in court, because everybody needs to hear these issues. Basically, they’re trying to sweep this under the rug.”